CUTF Learning Through Teaching: Carrying On With the Case Study

As a member of the high school Class of 2020, my transition to college was anything but smooth and typical. I drove through a parking lot for graduation, gave a valedictory address from my living room, and spent my first year at the University of Pittsburgh at home, 212 miles away from the Cathedral of Learning. Going from a small private high school to a large public university, I worried that I would be just another box on a Zoom screen. However, those worries were quickly dispelled after just the first few classes. In the 2020-21 academic year, through attending office hours, jumping into extracurricular activities, and just turning on the Zoom video feature during class, I met many professors and peers who have become mentors and friends. One such professor was Dr. Scott Nelson of the Department of Chemistry. My favorite class in high school had been AP Chemistry, due in large part to the infectious enthusiasm, larger-than-life personality, and genuine friendship of my teacher, Matt Hellerer. He pushed my work ethic to its limits and instilled in me a passion for science education. Thus, I was thrilled to take UHC Organic Chemistry I-II during my freshman year.

Despite the virtual format, Dr. Nelson presented an engaging, challenging, and rewarding course experience in CHEM 0730-0740. His teaching style, with detailed mechanistic explanations and laboratory-oriented problems, was a good match with my learning style. I was a frequent Office Hours attendee, with a long list of questions each week. Benefiting from the small class size and more intimate structure of an Honors course, I was often one of only a few attendees at these sessions. Through interactions with Dr. Nelson at this small group and, at times, one-on-one level, I was able to convey my genuine interest in the course material and my curiosity about its broader applications, beyond the scope of lecture material. Always willing to patiently talk through and draw out problems, Dr. Nelson made Office Hours approachable and valuable. Through these Zoom sessions over the course of two virtual semesters, I built a student-professor relationship with Dr. Nelson and came to know him as a talented, caring professor with whom I hoped to remain connected during and beyond my time at Pitt. In this same Office Hours setting, I approached Dr. Nelson halfway through the Spring 2021 semester about serving as a UTA for the following fall, discussed the related duties and responsibilities, and signed on for Fall 2021. After working with him closely during the Fall 2021 semester, discussing course material, pedagogy, and students’ needs, I felt comfortable proposing a CUTF project complementary to his teaching style and responsive to students’ particular stumbling blocks. My specific CUTF project, the Case Study Supplement, was inspired by my AP Chemistry experience and the similarities I discovered between the educational philosophies of my two science education mentors.

I have greatly enjoyed moving from the role of a student to the role of a collaborator alongside Dr. Nelson. I have been able to bring my own style of teaching, inspired by my first mentor in chemistry education, Matt Hellerer, to my interactions with students while maintaining a cohesive pedagogical understanding with Dr. Nelson. Students may ask me to explain a concept that was not totally clear from the lecture slides; they may ask Dr. Nelson to review a case study problem I have written but not sufficiently explained. We hope to be available to all students and allow them to find the teaching style which best suits their needs. Dr. Nelson has helped me to refine the Case Study Supplement and brainstorm ways to increase student engagement with the material. He is responsive to any problems that arise and provides constructive feedback whenever appropriate. While I was initially worried about finding sufficiently well-integrated examples from the scientific literature to support a longitudinal case study with a semester-long narrative structure, Dr. Nelson pointed me in the right direction with a wealth of resources and then took a laissez-faire approach, empowering me to design the Case Study Supplement independently, gain confidence in my work, and develop a product which fits my vision for the CUTF. Serving as a UTA and implementing the CUTF Case Study Supplement with Dr. Nelson has strengthened our student-professor relationship and vastly expanded my appreciation for science education.

To students hoping to learn more about teaching, identify a model of a good teacher in your life. I was fortunate enough to find such a model once in high school, in Matt Hellerer, and again in my first semester at Pitt, in Dr. Nelson. This individual need not be a professor; he may be a peer tutor, a coach, a club officer, or anyone else who takes on a didactic role. Identify the qualities and characteristics that draw you to his teaching style, making you eager to learn more. Start to put these qualities and characteristics into practice in your own interactions with those who seek out your advice. In your classes and your department, watch for professors who share these traits and who teach or research a subject that piques your interest. Do not feign interest, but make your genuine interest known. Everyone, student or professor, wants to talk about cool things with cool people. If you find a professor’s work or teaching style ‘cool,’ make the first move. If you find the same things cool, you’ll likely hit it off. Learn a bit about the professor’s research outside of the class. Find time to talk to the professor in a small group or one-on-one setting. Be honest. If you are struggling with a course concept, ask for help or re-explanations until it makes sense. If you find a topic particularly interesting, ask for supplemental reading. Build a real relationship, and then ask for ways in which you might be able to support that professor’s teaching or research in the future. This will not only open doors for you to begin gaining teaching experience as an undergraduate but will also develop valuable interpersonal and professional communication skills upon which you will rely throughout your life.

I was fortunate to present the current state of the CUTF Case Study Supplement at the UHC Research Fair on March 18, 2022. This is the poster I shared to guide my presentation.

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