Five doctoral students honored with Prize Teaching Fellowship

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Alice Baumgartner, Alex Engler, Kyle Luh, Daniel Martin, and Miranda Sachs are this year's recipients of the Prize Teaching Fellowship.

Among the most important resources undergraduate students have at Yale are their section teaching fellows (TF), doctoral students who assist in the teaching of a course.

This year, five doctoral students were honored with Prize Teaching Fellowships for their work as teaching fellows: Alice Baumgartner, Alexander Engler, Kyle Luh, Daniel Martin, and Miranda Sachs. The fellowship recognizes fellows for their “outstanding performance and promise as a teacher.” The prize has been given annually by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) since the 1999-2000 academic year.

“Learning how to teach is integral to graduate training at Yale,” said Lynn Cooley, dean of GSAS. “We highlight its importance in our mission statement. Good scholarship and research is refined and improved through the act of teaching. You learn about something when you teach it in ways that you cannot do otherwise.”

Recipients are nominated by their students and the faculty members they assist, and are awarded a $3000 stipend for the following academic year.

All doctoral candidates are expected to serve as a teaching fellow for a semester or more during their time at Yale. GSAS offers many resources through the Center for Teaching and Learning for students seeking to improve their teaching skills.

The winning fellows and their biographies follow.

Alice Baumgartner: learning with and from students

Alice Baumgartner is a Ph.D. candidate in history, whose research focuses on the U.S.–Mexico borderlands. Her dissertation follows the thousands of American slaves who escaped to Mexico during the 19th century in order to understand Mexico’s development as an antislavery republic and its significance to the United States. Her Louis Pelzer Award–winning article, “The Line of Positive Safety: Borders and Boundaries in the Rio Grande Valley, 1848–1880,” was published in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of American History.

During her time at Yale, Baumgartner has served as a TF for two history courses: “Civil War and Reconstruction” under professor David Blight and “The American West” under professor John Mack Faragher.

Blight, the Class of 1954 Professor of American History, said Baumgartner is a “brilliant, professional, caring, and yet suffer-no-fools teacher of the first order,” adding: “Her students love her not because she is easy or just nice — she is nice — but she exudes a careful expertise, a deep knowledge, and a passion to just talk about history and why it matters so much. I have had the great good luck to work with many terrific Ph.D. students who are devoted and talented teachers — none more than Alice.”

Baumgartner said it’s a “privilege to teach such wonderful students” and particularly enjoys teaching students from a wide range of backgrounds and interests. She cited one student who compared the process of Reconstruction to a particular kind of chemical reaction as one of her favorite classroom moments.

“The variety of backgrounds and interests is, on the one hand, a challenge: How do you make those 50-minute sections useful and interesting to everyone?” she said. “But, on the other hand, it means that students bring a wide range of perspectives to the classroom. I try to encourage my students to think about how to relate what they’re learning to whatever they’re interested in.”

Baumgartner also credits her students for expanding her own knowledge of the United States in the 19th century and reminding her why she decided to go to graduate school in the first place: “Teaching has been integral to my research because history is a collaborative process,” she said. “The paper trail of the past is too long and wide for a single historian to synthesize alone, and so teaching is an opportunity for me to learn with and from my students.”

Alexander Engler: cutting through clutter to promote understanding

Alex Engler completed his second year towards a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering in Dr. Laura Niklason’s lab. His research focuses on designing bioreactor culture systems for whole lung tissue engineering to determine which components of pulmonary physiology are the most crucial to mimic in vitro in order to gain the most functionality from the engineered tissue. Engler graduated from Dartmouth in 2012 with a B.A. and B.E. in biomedical engineering. There his research was focused on optimizing the mechanical properties of biomaterials for orthopedics. Prior to Yale, he worked at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, where he designed medical devices for promoting neonatal tissue growth.

This year, Engler served as a TF for Mark Saltzman’s fall course “Physiological Systems” and Niklason’s spring course “Tissue Engineering.” James Duncan, the director of undergraduate studies for biomedical engineering, praised Engler for “making himself available [to students] above and beyond the usual scheduled times,” while Saltzman said, “I am not surprised that the students liked him, as he was devoted to the experience.”

During his sections, Engler focused on helping to facilitate connections between the big picture and the fine details, he said, adding that it can be easy in science classes to get “bogged down by the plethora of details.” One of his favorite moments as a TF occurred last fall when he led the class through some exercises to emphasize some of the “trickier aspects” of a particular concept. He said he enjoyed seeing students grasp the concepts and gain a better appreciation for the material.

Engler is also grateful for his students helping him become a better teacher and researcher.

“The drive and passion that many of the Yale undergrads have is truly humbling to see, and it’s great to have a chance to cut through the stress and clutter to promote understanding and learning,” he said. “Figuring out the best and most effective ways to connect with my students has certainly made me a more effective and focused researcher, and it’s an essential addition to my work here.”

Kyle Luh: fielding tough questions from students

Kyle Luh finished his fourth year as a graduate student in the math department and is currently working on random matrices, random graphs, and randomized algorithms under the guidance of professor Van Vu. He was awarded the Prize Teaching Fellowship in 2014 for his teaching during the 2012-2013 academic year. Luh graduated with a B.A. in mathematics and physics from Harvey Mudd College.

He served as a lecturer for “Calculus of Functions of One Variable” under the guidance of professor James Rolf in the fall and has served as a TF for various math courses during his time at Yale. Luh said he enjoys fielding tough questions from his students as they “usually lead to interesting tangents” and joked that “the potential for embarrassing myself really keeps the students engaged.”

In his letter nominating Luh for the prize, Rolf wrote that he “works hard, he’s willing to try new things in order to improve” Before the school year began, Luh participated in a three-day workshop where he took the initiative to lead discussions about best practices to teach the upcoming material, Rolf said, adding that he wishes he had “more Kyle Luh’s” teaching with him as he is a “very likeable person and a joy to be around.”

“He always walks around with a smile on his face,” Rolf explained. “On the surface, this is a small detail. But in reality, students respond very positively to Kyle’s attitude. They feel that they can talk to him and no question is too small or unimportant. Kyle reinforces his student- centered approach by arranging office hours at times that are best suited for students to attend, rather than at times best suited for his own schedule.”

Daniel Martin: fostering a fascination with chemistry

Daniel Martin is a first-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry under the mentorship of professor James Mayer. Martin graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2015, where he was awarded a B.S. in chemistry with highest honors and conducted research on H2 evolving electrocatalysts. His current research goals pertain to studying the electrocatalytic O­2 reduction reaction, a topic that can be extended to applications in alternative energies.

This year, he has served as a TF for the courses “General Chemistry 1” and “General Chemistry 2” taught by Patrick Holland and Jonathan Parr, respectively. Holland said that Martin “consistently went above and beyond the call of duty to help his students, and made numerous study materials for them. His students could tell how deeply Daniel cared about them and their success, and this was reflected in uniformly enthusiastic course evaluations.”

Martin said his students have helped him become a better instructor and he particularly enjoys seeing students “enamored” with chemistry and becoming fascinated by it. His favorite memory as a TF happened on his birthday when he gave his section a “pop quiz” with a few chemistry-irrelevant questions (e.g. “Do you like cookies?”). The last question was, “How old am I?” Only one student out of 40 guessed correctly that Martin was 23 years old.

“The average guess was 26, but there were a handful of shameful 29’s tossed in there too,” he said. “Thanks for that, guys; it turns out that authority adds a few years.”

Miranda Sachs: teaching is “thrilling, challenging, exhausting, and invigorating”

Miranda Sachs is a rising sixth-year student in the history department. Her dissertation, “Child’s Work: The Transformation of Childhood in Third Republic Paris,” examines how changing conceptions of childhood in the late-19th and early-20th centuries redefined the experience and training of young people for the workforce, as well as contributing to new notions of juvenile delinquency. She spent the 2014-2015 academic year in Paris on a Fulbright Grant and a George Lurcy Fellowship. Originally from San Francisco, she earned her A.B. in history at Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude in 2011.

Sachs is recognized for her work as TF for professor John Merriman’s course “France, 1789-1871.” During her time at Yale, she has also served as a TF for the courses “Europe in the Age of Total War,” “Eastern Europe to 1914,” and “France since 1871.” She has also taught a seminar for Yale Summer Sessions called “Childhood and Adolescence in the 20th Century.”

Merriman said that it is “easy to sing the praises of Miranda as a teacher, as her students have constantly done. She is an absolutely superb teacher: organized, energetic, committed, resourceful, and effective. Miranda always transforms her sections into a terrific and fun learning experience. Without question she is one of the most able and successful teaching participants with whom I have ever worked.”

Sachs credits the professors she has worked with for helping her become a better teacher, adding she has learned a lot by simply watching them “weave together a story and keep students enthralled” during their lectures. Her favorite moment in her own sections was when she was able to tie into her lecture an early science fiction novel from Czechoslovakia. Afterwards, she said it “felt like an arrow had hit a target and was reverberating.”

“Teaching is thrilling, challenging, exhausting, and invigorating all at once,” she explained. “It sometimes feels as if I’m the main character in a show, but playing to an audience of 16, all of whom I have to keep riveted for an hour. It renews my enthusiasm for history each week. I love watching a student discover the subject of history, learning how different pieces of a particular event fit together, and then finding their voice as a historian as they craft and analyze arguments.”