The Graduate Teaching Award is awarded annually to the graduate Teaching Assistant who best exemplifies the qualities of a college educator. The recipient of the 2018 Award is Christopher Carroll.
Chris, a PhD candidate in the department of Physics and Astronomy, was selected unanimously by his department as an outstanding graduate student who embodies all aspects of a superb teacher. According to one of his nominators, few students have demonstrated the dedication and commitment Chris has toward teaching.
Among his experiences at Dartmouth, Chris participated in the GK-12 program, a National Science Foundation-funded outreach initiative that paired local teachers with graduate students, thus integrating Dartmouth resources into sustainable initiatives in local classrooms. Chris took this opportunity to collaborate with a middle school teacher over the course of a year by developing curriculum content, writing lesson plans, and supporting his partner teacher in order to make a meaningful impact in the lives of the students with whom he interacted.
Chris's enthusiasm and dedication to teaching has found an outlet in many other community outreach initiatives, including giving lectures at the Montshire Museum, volunteering at public observatory events, and serving as a mentor for local elementary school students.
In addition to his broad outreach participation, Chris has taken on considerable levels of responsibility in his role as Teaching Assistant (TA) for faculty members in the Physics and Astronomy department, supporting large classes, and developing engaging material for the students whom he teaches. Chris has also showed initiative in leading other TAs in various indoor and outdoor observing labs, scheduling lab sections, and coordinating outdoor sessions, all while holding regular office hours to help his own students.
Chris consistently takes the initiative in his teaching efforts, frequently going above and beyond baseline requirements to develop engaging materials and content for his students. Chris is not only a good, young scientist, but also a personable teacher who helps make learning easier and accessible to a wide audience, and we are delighted to present him with the 2018 Graduate Teaching Award. Congratulations, Chris.
We asked Chris to tell us more about his program, his approach to teaching, and what advice he would give others starting a teaching assignment. Here are his responses:
Tell us about your program and research interests:
I'm currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. My area of research is studying actively accreting supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, which are called active galactic nuclei (AGN). I study them using multiwavelength data from a number of different telescopes and surveys—mainly, the X-ray, optical, and infrared. I study a certain class of AGN called obscured quasars, which are some of the most energetic systems in the universe and yet have a substantial portion of their emission hidden by gas and dust and can evade detection in certain wavelength ranges. Since coming to Dartmouth, I've gained a deeper appreciation for statistics and machine learning, handling large data sets, and applying these topics to astronomy.
Why did you choose the Physics and Astronomy program at Dartmouth?
I chose Dartmouth because it is a diametric opposite to my undergraduate institution in terms of size. My undergraduate was a large, sprawling school with a sizable Physics department, while the astronomy department at Dartmouth consisted of five professional astronomers and a much smaller group of graduate students. The idea that I could get to know each person in my department personally and build relationships with each of the astronomers was extremely appealing. The Astronomy faculty at Dartmouth are the absolute top of their respective fields and had many open areas of interest.
Graduate school takes years of your life, so the environment you live in plays a big role as well. I'd much rather live in the middle of the woods—with good internet—than in a city or suburban area. The natural beauty and amount of outdoor activities in the area made Dartmouth even more attractive, especially considering I love the winter months. I've always loved hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, etc., and this is a premier area for getting out of the office and right into the wilderness. Also, my department was dog friendly – another plus!
How do you effectively translate your passion for your work/research into your teaching?
I think we're all deeply engaged in our chosen research topic, and I think projecting that interest into the classroom is the objective of teaching. If you can pique the interest of students, then they will want to learn more about a particular topic, and enthusiasm is absolutely catchy. I think setting up a framework in which students develop an understanding of the field at a level that makes them question further is like an introduction to research without them even knowing it. Suddenly they are scientists attempting to unlock nature's secrets.
What were the highlights or a memorable moment in your teaching experience?
When you see a student have that "aha" moment. Every. Single. Time.
What skills did you learn as a teacher that you might not otherwise have had access to?
Even if you think you do a decent job of communicating science, there's always room for improvement. The Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning is a fabulous resource that absolutely everyone at Dartmouth should be taking advantage of (thanks, Cindy!). Thanks to Dartmouth and the National Science Foundation, I was able to spend an entire year with a group of eighth-grade students, teaching them and watching them grow. That kind of long-term experience really helps drive home the importance of teaching, even more so than a single term as a graduate TA.
What did you learn from your students?
You don't really start learning until you understand why. Anyone can memorize a series of steps to solve a particular problem, but they're just transactions until you fully appreciate what it signifies and why you're learning the method. When that appreciation comes is when you finally learn.
Do you have any advice for others who are starting to take on teaching assignments?
Preparation is absolutely key. The more time you put into the material, the more it shows and the more your students will get out of it. If you care about their learning experience, they will notice. Remember, their time is just as valuable as your own, so make it worth it for everyone involved and you'll walk away feeling accomplished.