Whenever possible, I take opportunities to teach and to mentor. When I was a teaching assistant (TA) for Dr. Ella Tour's UCSD Recombinant DNA Techniques course in Spring 2016, I loved it, and was driven to give my 24 students the best educational experience I could give. I created a system of "thinkypoints" in order to encourage the students to understand their material more deeply and to gain practice in asking curiosity-based questions.
Me on my first day of TAing for Recombinant DNA Techniques at UCSD. Here I am in my underlab room :) My students were so nice and had so many questions (most of which I could answer). I didn't try to hide the fact that I don't know everything.
I have so much to share with my students! I spontaneously had them name their teams, and decided to gamify their learning. Today was a lot of math (dilutions and solutions) which can really stress people out, so I talked first about imposter syndrome (so if they struggle they don't think they aren't qualified) and gave them tips for dealing with the math.
Thinkypoint opportunities encourage students to become question-generating machines (as opposed to fact regurgitaters), ask their questions without fear, think beyond just what's needed to complete the labs, and to learn more about resources that can help them.
TAing (while also doing research) left me with so little downtime, which is tough because rest is so important to dealing with stress. But teaching my students was so fun! Here I am prepping for classes, so excited and full of ideas about how to communicate ideas to/with them.
A few weeks into the quarter, the thinkypoints were racking up! Team Snickers switched their name to Team Cookie Butter after I told them the reward for most thinkypoints is a full box of cookie butter sandwich cookies. And a new team has joined the lab, so we welcomed Team Four-Four to our little family!
The prize for the team with the most thinkypoints was a box of cookie butter sandwich cookies for each team member. A few weeks into the quarter, I brought in post-quiz cookies for everyone as a tease so they knew the prize is worth it. Judging by the zero cookies remaining, they were convinced. (Cookies were consumed outside the lab only.)
I was so excited to see so many responses in the question jar at the end of this lab day! The day's thinkypoint opportunities included science puns for future biology Triton 5k teams, and sharing about a time they struggled with something (non-science welcome).
My students and I recorded clips for a YouTube video I'm making about how miniprep (DNA extraction) kits work. The solutions in these kits have ambiguous names and often no ingredient lists for proprietary reasons, so we young scientists often don't know how our protocols work. We're fighting back by making a fun video (with some goofy costumes) that will hopefully be both educational and entertaining. I had so much fun recording them, and it was just day 1 of recording!
Question 5 was donated by Team 4-4 and question 6 by Star Tours. I'm encouraging them to practice communicating clearly and thinking deeply, and to suggest ideas and generate questions. Not to mention, to relax, as is clear from question 1.
The winning team names for my biology 5k team are Never Gonna AUG (2017) and Gel Electropho-racers (2018), both submitted by Team Thunderdome, who won 7 thinkypoints for their very popular suggestions! Pun explanations: Gel electrophoresis is a technique of using electric current across a jello-like material to separate DNA pieces by size. AUG is the sequence that tells cells where in a gene sequence to STOP reading.
I made an extra credit assignment called Sharing Science, so our students could practice their science communication skillz! Join them at @sharingscience and please encourage them! Note: If you're a prof and you want your students to do this assignment (very little effort needed from you!), email me for info! :)
My back and throat both hurt--not a great start to my last week of TAing. I fought off coughing fits throughout the day and couldn't bend down easily. But my students are awesome so I still had many a smile on my face throughout the day.
I made a career questionnaire for my students, and returned them with comments and suggestions including letting them know connections I have in their fields of interest. Many of us follow a career path we were pushed towards or that we chose before we had identified our strengths and passions. I want them to think critically about their career paths and find what makes them happy.
I threw a Cookie Butter Extravaganza at my apartment for my students, to celebrate the end of the quarter and to thank them for their hard work and enthusiasm. Which means Matt woke up to a much cleaner apartment and a LOT of science jokes and empowering pictures on the walls. There's also a bunch of blank science and Social Justice Pug memes for the students to fill in. :)
Last day of TAing for underlab! At the end we had an optional Sharing Stories activity, over cookie butter cookies. Most students left to study study study (and more power to them!), and the group of us who stayed had an intimate discussion about our struggles, which I moderated. What an end to the quarter!
I appreciate feedback, but I want my students to learn that critical feedback should be given along with positive feedback to soften the blow. That's how I graded them, and that's how I asked them to grade the Cookie Butter Extravaganza.
The Cookie Butter Extravaganza came right before finals, so I created a comfy craft salon set up for my students to relax. There were coloring books, science-y and empowering crafts, Legos, and snickety-snacks to enjoy. Of course crafts earn thinkypoints!
I want my students to understand that people who sound confident when they speak have probably practiced plenty, edited out the mistakes, looked at cue cards, etc. It's not that those people are superior to those who don't YET have the skills!
Keith learns about my research (which is blurred for Internet purposes because some is unpublished) at the Cookie Butter Extravaganza. We all had a great conversation about my project, and they asked lots of questions!
Lots of my students were too busy with finals to come to the Cookie Butter Extravaganza, but I didn't want them to miss out so I brought blank science memes and leftover snacks for on their way out after their final.
And the winner (of a box each of cookie butter cookies!) is......Control Group with 94 thinkypoints! They shot ahead by generating lots of questions about my research project. Each question was worth 3 thinkypoints because generating questions about research on the spot is no small feat! Round of applause for our winners and for all our awesome teams!
Imposter syndrome can strike out of nowhere! I didn't get into UCSD for undergrad and my students are so full of passion, smarts, and drive. So sometimes, my insecurities would creep up. But I've practiced fighting my imposter syndrome, so mostly my feelings are pride in them :)