Organic Chemistry Lab Teaching Assistants Receive $4000 Awards

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13 November 2018

Each semester the Chemistry Department offers a $4,000 award to graduate students on Teaching Assistantships for innovation in teaching. In order to be considered, the student must have completed a minimum of two semesters of Teaching Assistant work and submit a letter of interest, a resume, and a proposal describing an innovation for a course with support of a faculty member. The selected recipients not only receive the $4,000 stipend, but also have the opportunity to implement their proposal in the course they are assigned to teach.

Two of the recipients for the Fall 2018 semester were Jacob Piane and Varun Mandalaparthy, Teaching Assistants (TAs) for Organic Chemistry Lab (Chem 213W). Jake and Varun have been teaching Chem 213W since August 2017. Both were able to use their experience to formulate ideas that have had a positive influence on the course.

Jake proposed the implementation of supplemental workshops to reinforce important concepts related to tasks completed during the lab period. With students being encouraged to explore key concepts on their own before labs, Jake felt as though the brief prelab talks weren’t always enough to drive home key concepts. Jake had already been experimenting with workshops in unused course time to combat this issue and decided to officially propose the idea.

Jake has already seen the impact of these new reviews. “I have definitely noticed that the reviews have helped with writing lab reports. They are missing far fewer concepts on their reports than they did before.”

Varun was motivated to apply when he noticed that students did not consistently have an adequate understanding of Organic Chemistry mechanisms.  “I frequently observed that my students were struggling to understand how to draw mechanisms and quite often resorting to putting something down without really comprehending where it came from.”

After discussing the issue with Dr. Dykstra, the faculty member in charge of Chem 213W, the two came to the conclusion that utilizing Canvas would be the best way to combat this issue.  Thanks to his proposal, modules to address specific pre-lab questions have been moved to Canvas and now explicitly cover mechanisms. There are additional plans to add an extra credit module to help provide students with an overview of nomenclature.

These modules have gone a long way toward improving student understanding of nomenclature. In an anonymous poll of Varun’s Chem213W section of 13 people he received “resoundingly positive feedback” on the modules. In the final portion of the course students write their own mechanisms and Varun believes the changes will make their greatest impact then.

Both Jake and Varun felt as though the experience was rewarding and well worth the time they invested.

“It was definitely worth it. For obvious reasons the money was worth it, but the students understanding the concepts is the most important part” - Jake

“It was definitely worth the effort to be able to see that direct and immediate an impact. I have never done anything that was immediately pushed out to students and it has given me a lot of perspective on how designing a course works.” - Varun

This award is a great opportunity which rewards TAs with innovative ideas and helps the Chemistry Department continue to offer the best experience possible to its students. Applications for the Spring 2019 awards are still being accepted until Friday November 19th. Applications should be submitted to Lacy Miller ( and any questions about the continuing graduate fellowships should be directed to Joe Keiser (

Adam Warfield | November 12, 2018