Freshmen expecting long nights of cramming for “Intensive Introductory Physics” need not go it alone. Thanks to Yale’s expansion of a mentor program, now they can turn to new undergraduate “teaching interns” for help along the way.
The program allows undergraduates who were successful in particular science courses in previous terms to work as teaching interns in those same courses. They do not replace graduate teaching assistants and are prohibited from grading students’ work, but the teaching interns serve as mentors, holding weekly study sessions and assisting students in laboratories.
The program has operated with private grant money in a few select courses for several years now, but this year a council of Yale science professors began allocating University funds to expand the program to include more courses, said Charles Bailyn, who serves as chairman of the council and of the Astronomy Department.
“It’s a whole new way of having people learn,” Bailyn said. “It’s just one extra layer in addition to the professor and teaching assistant to go to.”
Bailyn said the program of “roving advisors” is designed for laboratory courses and challenging science lecture classes like “Freshman Organic Chemistry.”
Electrical engineering professor Janet Pan has employed teaching interns for her “Circuits and Electronics Laboratory” course through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Pan said the interns help the students who understand the theoretical concepts of the course but struggle with operating the lab machinery.
“They often will be able to describe to the students what they learned, how it all works; it just sort of helps,” Pan said. “This gives me some free time to talk about sort of the overall concepts of the course and the undergraduate lab assistants help more with, ‘Okay, your circuit doesn’t work,’ [or] ‘I need help with that.’ It’s tedious, but it’s important.”
Pan said she always hires one teaching intern for each of her two 15-student lab sections.
“It’s just more people for [students] to ask questions of, more people to get the circuits to work when they don’t,” Pan said.
For the first time, physics professor Steven Girvin this year hired two teaching interns for his “Intensive Introductory Physics” course, which Girvin called in an e-mail “the most difficult and fast-paced” introductory physics course at Yale.
“Since this is a somewhat unusual course, I thought that it would be very helpful to have teaching interns who had survived the course last year act as peer mentors for this year’s class,” Girvin said.
For his 60-student “Freshman Organic Chemistry” lecture course this semester, chemistry professor Michael McBride hired two teaching interns. He said the teaching interns will be able to spend extra time helping students who fall behind in the material.
“This is a supplemental help mode,” said McBride, who has hired teaching interns in previous semesters with the Howard Hughes grant. “What I’ve traditionally had them do from the beginning is focus on the students who had the most trouble on the previous hour exam who could use extra help.”
Catherine Smith ’05 is working as a teaching intern in McBride’s chemistry class this fall. She said about half the class showed up to her first study session on Sunday night.
“I think it’s really helpful for them to have undergraduates that they can relate to,” Smith said. “We’ve come at it from the same perspective [three] years ago that those students are having today. It helps when you’re a freshman to have someone other than a graduate student to [go to].”
Heiko Yang ’08, who is enrolled in McBride’s course, said he is looking forward to working with the teaching interns.
“They’re more accessible than the grad students,” Yang said. “It’s better to have someone who has been through that class so they have experience, not just from the teaching standpoint but from the student standpoint.”
But the program does not just benefit the students, but the interns as well, professors said. Working as a teaching intern is a sure way to boost one’s resume, Pan said.
“It’s good for the teaching intern too because it helps them get a real job in something technical, and they have good experiences,” Pan said.