Helping Them Become the Best Versions of Themselves
Every January, the first-year class returns to campus during intersession for Citizen Science, Bard College's scientific literacy intensive. Serving about 500 students every year, Citizen Science is a considerable undertaking run by a dedicated staff and 30 visiting faculty members, with the support of a specially trained group of Bard students: the Citizen Science teaching fellows. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the teaching fellows program. Dr. Amy Savage, Citizen Science director and visiting assistant professor of biology, designed the teaching fellow position when she began as director in 2012, and the first team appeared in the labs for Citizen Science 2013. Fifty Bard students and alumni/ae have since served in the role, and as the program grows, so does its impact on the lives of Bardians on campus and after graduation.
Teaching fellows make the Citizen Science classroom experience seamless and fluid, working one-on-one with the underclassmen and assisting the faculty with running the laboratory experiments. Teaching fellows often return in subsequent years, forming a close team invested in creating an exceptional experience for the first-year class. Along the way, they receive a great deal of academic and professional mentoring as students and alumni/ae from Dr. Savage, Laboratory Coordinator Rebeca Patsey, and the visiting faculty.
If you drop by a Citizen Science lab, you'll see these sophomores and juniors in action. The teaching fellows come in early every day to set up the labs and stay late to break it all down. More than laboratory assistants, they are trained not only in the location and use of materials, but in the fundamentals of the experiments. They master the practical and theoretical elements of each lesson in the context of current scientific inquiry. Fellows learn to approach the experiment from multiple angles so they can support faculty with different teaching styles and perspectives on the material, as well as younger students with different learning styles and levels of scientific background. "A teaching fellow has to be a bit of chameleon," Dr. Savage explains.
Over two months of training on campus in the fall, they practice teaching every lab and performing every experiment so they can step in however they are needed in the classroom, whether it's demonstrating to students the basics of pipetting or being ready at a faculty member's elbow at the right moment with the materials that illustrate the next example in the discussion. Dr. Savage observes:
They’re working with a number of talented scientists from a lot of different institutions, learning to navigate these relationships in a professional manner and help the faculty be successful. The teaching fellows are representing the culture of Bard to the faculty, but they’re also representing the culture of Bard to our first-year students. Our first-year students have a peer in the classroom that is role modeling what it means to engage in a conversation around scientific evidence from a liberal arts perspective. What does it mean to ask probing questions and to respond thoughtfully? How should you interrogate something, perhaps outside of your area of expertise? Having a scientific background is not a prerequisite, but a willingness to work hard, to learn the materials that you don’t know at the start, to help those that are struggling to grow, and to work as a team, those are the prerequisites for this job.Coming from a variety of majors, fellows are well positioned to work with first-year students whose academic backgrounds range widely. Junior teaching fellow and psychology major Eleanor Broughton notes the challenge of imagining the first-year perspective and tailoring her teaching to different students. “I’m trying to think about ways of framing what they’re doing in the lab so that they are engaged and making sense of the work. Some of the students might be a little intimidated by the laboratory environment at first, so making it a safe and comfortable space is always our goal.” She adds, “The best part of the job is after I’ve introduced a lab and I’m walking around talking with students, when I see them having fun and really understanding the material.”
Citizen Science aims to give all students the tools to be informed citizens when confronted with scientific information. Being able to apply what they learn in the classroom to life outside academia is crucial. The program focuses on infectious disease, and features a series of expert guest speakers who lecture on such topics as HIV prevention and treatment in youth. The faculty encourages students to relate what they see in the classroom to what they might read in the news. Eleanor’s fellow junior psychology major Clarence Brontë observes, “You’re constantly thinking about the greater societal impacts and the way that science moves outside of the lab and into actual world spaces. It's super rewarding to be a teaching fellow because you get to facilitate those sorts of conversations.” Eleanor and Clarence are now both considering careers teaching at the college level.
Fellows who excel and show a vision for Citizen Science may be selected as senior fellows. This small group of students in turn mentors the teaching fellows. Senior fellows assist in training the teaching fellows, giving feedback and notes from their experience. "It was an honor in a huge way to be selected by Dr. Savage, to have our opinions valued at that level, and to be amongst people that you respect so highly," says teaching fellow alumna Andrea (Dre) Szegedy-Maszak '16. Last year, the senior fellows collaborated to write a handbook for the teaching fellows. They hold office hours so the new fellows can meet with them and seek advice on teaching and lab support. "This is another opportunity for the team to get up and practice teaching or to work through scientific ideas that are not quite gelling with a peer that has experience and can give them feedback," says Savage.
As part of the program, fellows benefit from a level of career guidance that is unusual for a college setting. Throughout their time at Bard and after graduation, Dr. Savage works with dozens of teaching fellows outside of the Citizen Science Program. She offers support on Senior Projects and course selection, gives feedback on their cover letters and resumes, coaches them as they prepare for interviews, and discusses job opportunities with them at length. Often she acts as a reference for jobs and graduate school, and as a sounding board as they consider grants and research opportunities. Teaching fellows learn to translate the liberal arts experience into the workplace.
For Dre, this is the first winter in five years that she hasn't been involved in Citizen Science. She took the course as a first-year, served as a teaching fellow in her sophomore and junior years, and returned as a senior fellow in her last year at Bard. "My strongest Bard memories are of being a teaching fellow," she says. At first intending to major in psychology, the laboratory experience in Citizen Science gave her the courage to take her first biology course, Introduction to Microbiology with Assistant Professor of Biology Brooke Jude. She ended up majoring in biology instead. "I wanted to be a teaching fellow because Citizen Science had such a profound impact on me," Dre explains, "and because I wanted to take some of the spark that it lit in me and help other students have that moment."
Today, Dre works as the field outreach coordinator at the Afterschool Alliance in Washington, D.C., in a role she describes as directly following from her work as a senior teaching fellow in Citizen Science. "To have my first job out of college be this relevant to my experience and my goals is remarkable," she notes. Dre supports volunteers around the country who are working in nonprofit organizations that encourage STEM learning opportunities for young people. "I am serving that same kind of advisory role with them as I was, as a senior fellow, with current teaching fellows. Dr. Savage helped me learn how to work with a big group of people, how to schedule, how to keep my own time organized. And how to really—this is something that I learned from her example—how to maintain respect from the people you work with by holding yourself and them to a high standard."
Teaching fellows describe a deep sense of camaraderie that stems from "having each other's backs" in the classroom, and those relationships continue after graduation. This winter, senior teaching fellow alumna Leah Silverberg '16 will join Dre at the Afterschool Alliance as a research assistant in their STEM and research divisions. When the position became available, Dre contacted Leah and encouraged her to apply. Soon, the two will be colleagues again. Leah notes, "Without Citizen Science, I wouldn't be going into this job or even this field." The combination of science and education training that she received as a teaching fellow is closely in line with the work of the Afterschool Alliance.
A double major in biology and studio art, Leah wasn't sure what to expect from taking a foundational science course as a first-year, but Citizen Science surprised her. "My professor paired the science students with the non–science students. What I got out of the program was how to explain difficult scientific concepts to students who hadn't tackled scientific material before," she explains. When she became a teaching fellow as a junior, she brought what she had learned with her lab partner into her work with the new first-year class. "The whole point of the Citizen Science Teaching Fellows Program is learning how to communicate science in ways that everyone can understand," she observes. "People often feel immediately closed off to scientific ideas. To be able to explain difficult concepts to people who have never had any experience with them is a fundamental life skill that doesn’t just apply to science."
Dylan Dahan '15 was a biology major at Bard with a periphery focus in French studies. Now he's in graduate school at the University of Oxford studying microbiology and computational biology in the Department of Zoology. His research focuses on using evolution to design probiotics that prevent staph infections. For Dylan, working as a teaching fellow made him feel more self-assured. For the first time, he acquired a body of valuable knowledge and shared it with students. The close work with faculty made being a scientist seem feasible for the first time. "When you are at Bard, you are taking classes and doing projects, but the idea of being a professor, a researcher, or a Ph.D. student is so far ahead that you could never really imagine yourself in that position. But then to engage day to day with these professors almost as peers and to set up and break down labs with Dr. Savage, and with people like Dr. Brooke Jude—the experience bridged that gap between undergraduate student and researcher for me." Dylan is currently applying to Ph.D. programs in the United States. He looks forward doing a lot of teaching and spending a lot of time in the lab.
This time of year, as Citizen Science rolls back around, Dr. Savage receives a lot of emails and cards from former students, particularly former teaching fellows, who closely associate winter with being back in the labs. Students will drop in to chat for a few minutes about their course schedule or a job opportunity, or just to catch up. "My role as their boss, as their mentor, is not to tell them the answers; it’s to help them think through their questions and the problems they face. It is to encourage them to identify their core values and to have confidence in their identity," says Dr. Savage. "It’s incredibly rewarding to help so many people continue to be the best version of themselves. Those relationships will last a lifetime. I feel very fortunate to have worked with students that are as interesting and talented as the students at Bard."
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Post Date: 01-31-2017