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The Other Side of the Lab Bench: An Instructor’s Perspective

As I enter my sophomore year as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, I find myself amazed at how quickly time has passed. An entire year of new experiences, relationships and challenges flew by like a blur, yet I don’t feel very different. Actually, that’s not completely true. I have definitely learned so much more in numerous subject areas – particularly in Chemistry. After all, if taking three lecture and lab courses, which cover General and Organic Chemistry, didn’t improve my understanding of the subject, I would start getting a little worried!  Having completed these courses and demonstrated proficiency in the subject, my peers and I were offered the opportunity to assist a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) in a Chemistry 1AL Lab section as part of the Chemistry Teacher Scholar Program.

A year’s worth of experience with Chemistry would be meaningless, however, if I could not relay my knowledge to the students. Therefore, all Teacher Scholars were required to attend an orientation with the GSIs and to enroll in a teaching course. Initially, I was a bit intimidated to be working alongside a much more knowledgeable and experienced GSI. I didn’t want to end up giving a student a wrong explanation or say something that might contradict the GSI. So imagine my surprise when I walk into the room and find the GSIs just as nervous and inexperienced as I was!

During the orientation, it turned out that the freshmen and the GSIs were in the same boat, struggling to learn the campus and find their classrooms. To top it all off, the majority of them had never been an instructor for a class before! Suddenly, all of those horror stories of my friends having legitimately horrible GSIs seemed a lot more realistic. That’s not to say that the GSIs were unintelligent or under-qualified. It was a bit of a shock to see how lost they were! Maybe also somewhat comforting. It made me realize that they were still trying to learn the ropes of teaching just like the rest of us.

It was also amusing to see the similarities between the GSIs and myself as they practiced doing the same three labs I did only a year ago. As a freshman, I had always assumed that my lab GSIs knew everything there was to know about the labs, right down to the last detail. In reality, a lot of them have never performed the labs themselves and have never even been on the UC Berkeley campus before. They were just as much of a freshman as an undergraduate!

After the orientation, I met my assigned GSI – a man from Hong Kong with a heavy accent. We taught our first Chem 1AL lab section bright and early at 8 AM. It was a mutualistic relationship – I would give him a sense of what to expect and let know of the common challenges that students may face based on my own experience, while he would help me answer students’ questions. In other words, we were working as a team and teaching the class together rather than me only assisting with menial tasks in the background while he taught the class. Throughout the three-hour lab period, he and I would make rounds through the rows of lab benches, overseeing the students’ experiments and helping if they ran into any trouble along the way.

I greatly enjoyed being able to give my students advice – sharing my past experiences with the lab and answering any conceptual questions about the chemistry. As a Teacher Scholar, I want to be someone that my students feel comfortable talking to if they have any problems. I understand though how hard it can be to admit that you don’t understand something, particularly in an academically competitive atmosphere. I really want my students to know that it’s okay to ask for help or to not understand something straight away. It is something that I struggled with myself as a freshman and am still struggling with, even today.

One of my primary motivations for joining the Teacher Scholar Program in the first place was to help other students in the areas that I found challenging to support them in gaining a firm grasp on the material. Being a Teacher Scholar for this course gives me the opportunity to have an impact on these students. For many incoming freshmen, it is one of the first classes they are taking at UC Berkeley, and I will try my best to make that experience a positive one.

Edited by: Nelli Morgulchik and Naomi D’Arbell