Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management
Recipient, Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs
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. Patina Mendez received the award in 2012.
I teach a senior thesis research and writing course that guides students through the process of conducting and writing an Environmental Sciences senior thesis. In this class, I co-instruct a year-long seminar with Kurt Spreyer, which teaches the mechanics of research and writing. In my course, Graduate Student Instructors mentor students alongside us and contribute using their own experience in researching and writing their own dissertation. Because the teaching method for the course requires a high frequency and of one-on-one meetings and writing feedback out of lectures, we train GISs to mentor undergraduate students — skills that will transfer beyond the content of the course material. Part of my goal in mentoring GSIs in my course is to foster their own development as mentors: a role they hopefully will take on in academic positions or in the workplace as their careers advance.
Scientific writing and the process of conducting research is not just about finding an answer, but is an exercise in inquiry. For students, the process of inquiry requires learning how to learn, how to find answers; it can be very challenging. But most importantly, teaching students how to conduct research requires a balance of discipline (research is goal-oriented, but can have many obstacles) and humility. The process of conducting research often elucidates how much we don’t know, and answers can be very unsatisfying — but the end product, and the achievement of completing such a long and deep project as an undergraduate, can be very empowering!
Humility. Doing science and writing science is a challenge! Projects must have good design, good analysis, solid writing and communication. But not all projects achieve these ideals, and projects that started out with great ideas and planning rarely end perfectly, despite our best efforts. Our class is about researching, adaptation, and on the short timeline of the senior thesis, working with the data we have in the context of the research questions we’re working to answer. We don’t always know immediately the most appropriate way to analyze data, or approach a research question, but our biggest goal in the class is to figure out how to tackle these problems and end with a victory dance when we do figure it out. Our GSIs are co-conspirators in the classroom — sharing their own personal experiences about challenges they have faced in their own work — they help us emphasize process over absolute answers. What was the challenge? How did we feel about it? How did we solve it? How can students learn from our own experiences? These messages and experiences from the GSIs are so essential and powerful to the classroom dialogue and in continually inspiring our students to move forward.
Voice. This voice in the classroom of GSIs is so empowering. Because our class services multidisciplinary projects across the spectrum of environmental sciences — policy, ecology, energy, sustainability, biogeochemistry — my co-instructor and I are not experts in all of the disciplines of student projects, so we work to build a team that has a broad skill-set. GSIs come to our team with tremendous experiences and talents that add to our classroom interactions, support projects, and add to our curriculum. GSIs identify places where our curriculum needs to be augmented for individual student projects and often rise to the occasion to design workshop modules or work with concentrated workgroups on data collection or analysis techniques. It is so satisfying when our GSIs feel so comfortable with the course and their own skillset that they are willing to share and help foster a diverse learning environment that can access a wider range of students than the instructors alone.
Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork. Teaching is a community activity. In our classroom philosophy, we work as a team — GSIs and instructors together. All class emails are signed “Team 175” to present unified messages to students. This messaging gives the GSIs equal weight in the eyes of students for decision-making, gives them authority and autonomy in making decisions about project directions, timelines, and grading (with consultation with instructors for harder decisions). We work in pairs to design workshops and modules, and to deliver content to small groups of students. Each year GSIs create new modules modeled from those we’ve developed to add depth to the course in their area of specialization. The curriculum that has been developed by GSIs is fabulous and has enriched the course.
Structure. Some parts of teaching are hard but other parts should be easy. Structure in the course is makes the easy parts easy so there is room for the hard parts. Our class is rigorously structured with assignment schedules, draft requirements, office hours, and required classroom attendance. For example, we’ve designed clear processes and forms with written specifics of the learning goals for the assignment or activity, detail of how assignments should be graded, and often include graded examples to serve as models. Feedback and assessment is transparent for the GSI and, in turn, for the students, giving an indication of steps for improvement and overall quality of the work. GSIs have really liked these grading forms and rubrics and have helped us by streamlining the process into a spreadsheet for quick and easy calculation of grades — and we have, in turn, added the grading guidelines to the digital forms. Because our course has so many moving parts, we’ve also created an online survival guide for GSIs, a living document that changes in response to our needs. We’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with our learning goals and processes for our GSIs to understand the rationale underlying our pedagogical choices.
Mentoring. So what is my true mentoring philosophy? Listening, sharing, and learning. Over the years my own mentors were willing to share their own experiences, explain rationale in design or choices in both teaching and research, and I really try and do the same. I aim to model transparency in strategies related to our learning goals and work hard to develop the curriculum to meet these goals. I learn from the experiences of my GSIs and work to meet their own learning goals through our course. Hopefully tireless enthusiasm doesn’t hurt either.
Humility (again). More than anything, I feel that I have been lucky. The GSIs I have worked with have all been amazingly enthusiastic, talented, and hard-working individuals that have been so willing to dedicate time and energy to our students and to be cheerleaders for their successes. Many of the GSIs that taught alongside me became my friends. I am so honored by this award. It’s incredible to be recognized as a mentor to them because many times I felt like they were mentoring me.