Grad Student Life Beyond Fieldwork: Part 2 (Teaching)

What do FCE grad students do besides trekking through mangroves, collecting water samples and battling mosquitoes? My four part series, “Grad Student Life Beyond Fieldwork,” is designed to give readers of this blog a general idea of what we do when we’re not in the Everglades. Whether you’re a prospective student wanting to know more about grad school life or a PI wondering why we haven’t finished analyzing our data yet, we hope this series gives you a more complete picture of what we do. Part 1 covered graduate coursework and degree requirements. Today’s post, Part 2, covers our experiences as teaching assistants.

This is a picture of my classroom for History of Life Lab.  Today, my students did a genetics lab involving phenotype ratios in corn pollen and corn kernels.
Many of us are financially supported by research assistantships, particularly those who are advanced in their PhD research. Others, including myself, make grad school financially feasible through teaching assistantships. As a TA in the Geosicence program at FIU, I am required to teach two lab courses a semester and enroll full-time in my own courses.

For the past 3 semesters, I’ve been teaching History of Life Lab. This lab supplements a lecture course and allows students to learn about the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras through hands-on analysis of fossils. Does it have anything to do with the Everglades? Well, not really, unless I decided to teach extensively about the Pleistocene bryozoans that form the foundation of the Everglades. My knowledge of both biology and geology, however, made me a good fit for teaching this course. I typically have 24 students per class who are mainly freshman/sophomore non-science majors. Although I am glad FIU requires non-science students to take a natural science lab, the students can sometimes be difficult to motivate.

A display case of fossils and fossil models, as well as a "fossil" teaching device: the overhead projector
In order to keep students interested, I try to assess what they already know and what they have never seen before. I also start off each class with a detailed picture-filled PowerPoint that goes over all the background information they need to complete the labs. In past semesters, I’ve assigned extra credit activities involving a scavenger hunt around the Geoscience Department. I also give them review worksheets for their midterm and final exams so they can more easily determine what information is important and what is not.

Fossils from the Paleozoic Era (> 250 million years old)
By teaching this class, I have learned a lot about the art of teaching. First, teachers spend a tremendous amount of time preparing lectures, devising grading schemes and tediously grading papers. I also learned that teachers may not always be teaching the subjects they are most knowledgeable about, but they still put their best effort into their work. In other words, my students may be convinced that I have a weird obsession with fossils, but they may not expect my area of expertise to be Everglades-related. Finally, now that I have prepared my own worksheets and tests, I have become a better student myself, and I can more easily predict how my work will be graded and what potential test questions might be.

FCE Grad Students:  Have you taught classes before?  If so, did you enjoy teaching?  What was your teaching experience like?

Other Readers: Do you have any questions about our teaching requirements or our roles as teachers?  Have you ever worked as a teacher?


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