This article about the FFGSI program originally appeared in our Fall 2019 Newsletter. 

Students hold up the beaker, showing off the color change they are excited to see as part of their experiment. In this first year lab, they are gaining lab skills and exposure to experimental protocols but through a genuine research lens.

Part of the Authentic Research Experience (ARC) program at UM, Chem 125-Snow has first year students carry out analyses on Arctic snow samples, identifying ions and concentrations, and forming ideas about why samples differ by location where they were collected. This is akin to the analytical work that Professor Kerri Pratt’s research group does in its work in the Arctic.

Pratt has assembled a fairly large team over a few years to integrate the relevant analyses from her research program into a section of the first-year general chemistry laboratory. She credits help from former graduate students Nate May (PhD, 2018) and Stephen McNamara (PhD, 2019), and now Future Faculty Graduate Student Instructors (FFGSIs) Jeff Spencer and Madeline Cooke, with the success of the snow chemistry section.

“It would not have been possible to have developed CHEM 125-Snow lab without them,” Pratt says.

As early as 1994-98, the department started creating opportunities for faculty members to recruit undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral associates to form “teaching groups” for instructional projects as a direct parallel to the way they form “research groups,” according to Professor Brian Coppola. In 2014, the department institutionalized its collective activities devoted to future faculty development, under the direction of Coppola as the new Associate Chair for Educational Development and Practice. The faculty and the students are all clear about the importance of the FFGSI option for getting interesting work done.

Better Teaching

“The FFGSI program has been an amazing resource to get help with curricular projects in the department,” reports Professor Anne McNeil. “I use the FFGSIs to get stuff done that I know will help the course run more smoothly and will help the GSIs and students have a better experience, but that don’t rise to the top of my “must-do” list before the term starts.

“Last year I collaborated with a FFGSI to help streamline a Michigan Math Science Scholars [summer program for high school students] course, which had a lot of good parts but they were too disconnected and, in many cases, not optimized. ”The 15 high school students that participated in the revised course appreciated the new ‘flow’ and the improved experiments with clearer instructions.

“Overall, I have been able to teach better courses becauseof the FFGSI contributions,” McNeil says.

“The FFGSI program was invaluable as a resourcewhen I was in the process of developing my researchbasedsection of CHEM 216,” says Professor John Wolfe. “The two FFGSIs spent their time optimizingthe experimental protocols, helping me assemble thecourse materials, and structuring the class.“There is simply no way I could have done this withoutconsiderable help, give the amount of time, especiallyin the lab doing wet chemistry, that was required,”Wolfe says. “The benefits for all involved were immense.I was able to get the class put together, the FFGSIs gained valuable experience developing curriculumfor a lab class, and the students got a unique lab class totake, that would not have existed without this program.”

Catylyst for Compute to Learn

Professor Eitan Geva has developed an honors optionfor CHEM 260, the second-year survey course inphysical chemistry, called “compute-to-learn” (CTL).Geva says “The CTL honors studio would have neverbeen possible without the FFGSI program. In fact, the introduction of the FFGSI program was the catalyst fordeveloping the studio.

“And it was FFGSIs who spearheaded the development and continual improvement of self-guided tutorials,designed the schedule and ran the studio inpractice. Doing so provided FFGSIs with invaluableexperiences that a traditional GSI position could not,including mentoring undergraduate peer leaders, guidingresearch and trouble shooting in real time. It is nowa visible part of my program.”

Undergraduate Funding Needs

“It’s incredible to see how well this has worked,” reports Coppola. “As always, the incremental expense is the bottleneck for how many of these positions we can offer.” There is a need for more support for undergraduates to free up GSI time. “An attractive funding target that I hope we can promote more actively is funding for stipends to support the undergraduates who pursue 'undergraduate teaching teaching.’ It is exactly parallel to supporting ‘undergraduateresearch.’ ”

“In fact, the typical teaching stipend we need for the undergraduates to teach during the entire term is currently about half the level of the typical summer stipend for research. ”

Benefit Trifecta of Future Faculty GSI positions (FFGSI)
How it works. . .

Faculty members propose teaching project ideas that they want to develop. Graduate students review the descriptions and meet with the faculty towork out the details of a proposed project.

Graduate students who would otherwise have their regular GSI duties for 20 hours/week can devote 10 of those hours to the educational development work. This time is universally seen as an excellent preprofessional experience. The work—as it should,says Coppola—often results in publications. Forthose students carrying out education research, thework is integrated into their dissertations.

To compensate for the 10 hours of work that is notbeing performed by the GSI, the department canhire outstanding UM junior and senior studentswho have usually already logged many instructionalhours through the Honors organic chemistryprogram or through being a group leader with theScience Learning Center. These students earn acombination of pay and credits for their work as undergraduateeducational support for courses.

Learn more about our FFGSI and current projects on our CSIE|UM website:

Chemical Sciences at the Interface of Education|University of Michigan
Preparing the next generation of chemistry faculty