Department of Chemistry
Recipient, Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs

Background of the Award
Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

Background of the Award

Each spring graduate students are invited to nominate faculty members for the Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs. Typically each nomination is supported by several GSIs who have worked with the honoree. The award is sponsored by the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs and the GSI Teaching & Resource Center.

Michelle Douskey’s Statement of Mentoring Philosophy

I believe to be a good mentor you have to be very involved in helping people to realize their full potential. In my dealings with the GSIs, I try to be involved in their work and, if needed, in their lives.

I have been fortunate to have benefited from the mentorship of many people during my life, some early in my career and some more current. The person most responsible for my career direction was my freshman chemistry teacher, Dr. Bruce Mattson. In high school I had a very negative experience with chemistry, but that changed when I took introductory chemistry my freshman year of college. Instead of remaining confused and turned off by the material, I became engaged and successful primarily due to the excellent teaching of Dr. Mattson. He became my advisor and mentor, involving me in chemistry on many levels. He encouraged me to become a teaching assistant, start doing research, and apply for scholarships. In general, he kept his eyes open for opportunities for me, and encouraged me to challenge myself. I became completely hooked on the field and inspired to become a professor myself.

Two of my colleagues here at Cal have also been mentors to me, both personally and professionally. Professor Angy Stacy and Dr. Eileen Lewis have taught me a lot about education research, teaching, and learning. Ironically, at my previous institution, we were using curriculum materials developed in part by these two remarkable women. The materials link chemistry to real-world applications and issues, which really engages the students with the material. I continue to use this approach in my teaching. My interactions with my mentors and colleagues have shaped my teaching philosophy and therefore, my mentoring philosophy.

My goal in my own classroom is to get students to think critically about science related issues they encounter in their life: from the news media, their doctors, and politicians. The goal can be reached in part by learning chemistry and how to apply the chemical concepts to new challenges. Students hopefully will learn about the use of mathematical models to interpret data, while understanding limitations of the models. When possible, I opt for discovery over delivery. For instance, it can be more meaningful for a student to be presented with data and draw their own conclusions rather than having the instructor always presenting the punch line. I also tend to ask students questions that ask them to explain or predict, rather than to recall a concept or fact. I try to make sure that every aspect of the course matches my learning goals. I ask “why?” questions in class so the students can practice articulating their ideas and get a sense of the depth of explanation I will require on exams.

In my work with GSIs, I try to expose them to different ideas in teaching and learning so they find what works best in their classroom. They are learning techniques for communicating about science, addressing misconceptions, and facilitating discussion. Many of these skills will serve them well whether or not they choose an academic career. I get to interact with the new graduate students at many different points during their first semester: orientation, Chem 300, and as a supervisor. My diverse job duties provide me with the unique opportunity to try to shape the GSIs’ attitudes about teaching.

During orientation, we focus on defining the role of the GSI in the large, service courses. Topics include teaching effectively, classroom management, and professional behavior. The new graduate students get the opportunity to practice their teaching and also perform a few of the first experiments of the semester. Orientation is structured like my classroom, providing the GSIs the opportunity to think about, discuss, and practice the tasks they will be performing in their jobs.

Most of our GSIs have little control over the curriculum because they teach one of several lab and discussion sections for large, introductory courses. I try to strike a balance between ensuring consistency among sections and letting the GSIs be creative. I have found that having a pedagogy course (Chem 300) concurrent with the first GSI appointment makes the whole semester a much richer experience. In Chem 300 we target our readings and assignments towards improving the quality of the education we provide through assessment and self-reflection. The GSIs are observed twice in the semester, once by me and once by the head GSIs. The GSIs also observe each other as part of their requirements for the pedagogy class. Through these observations, we can help to identify what is going well and what could be improved. If I see something exciting going on, I present that to the larger group of GSIs in our weekly meeting. Sharing these best practices helps to raise the quality of teaching for the whole course. During weekly meetings I seek out the GSIs’ input on the successes and failures of the previous week’s experiment and discussion. The information they provide to me is crucial to the continued improvement of the course, and their contribution helps them to feel like we are all a team.

In the future I would like to develop and teach a course that is geared towards preparing the graduate students for the academic job search. The students would assemble a teaching portfolio which would contain teaching philosophy, summary of teaching evaluations, and develop a course syllabus. The students would deliver practice job talks and demonstrations of teaching to further hone their communication skills.