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Calvin Yeager named the recipient of the 2018 Paul M. Althouse Teaching Assistant Award

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August 31, 2018 – Calvin Yeager, a student in the Biochemistry, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology (BMMB) Graduate Program at Penn State, has been honored with the 2018 Paul M. Althouse Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award.

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department presents the award each year to a graduate student for their outstanding teaching abilities in an undergraduate laboratory course. Recipients are selected by the Graduate Affairs Committee based on student evaluations and the evaluation of the supervising course instructor.

Yeager has served as a teaching assistant (TA) since the Fall 2017 semester, during which he assisted Dr. Louise Kessler, a previous member of the faculty, with Microbiology 202. In the spring of 2018 Yeager assisted Dr. Greg Broussard, a member of the BMB faculty, with Microbiology 421W.

For Yeager, teaching is something that he truly enjoys. In assisting with both courses, but seen more in Microbiology 202, he has found that there are many students who are not microbiology majors, such as Veterinary and Biomedical and Food Science majors, who take the course to earn required credit but do not intend to pursue a career in microbiology. With these students in particular, Yeager finds excitement in coaxing and teaching them into truly enjoying the course.

Calvin Yeager 2As a teaching assistant, Yeager was given the opportunity to write and grade some of the assignments and through that process discovered how nervous and anxious students can become regarding uncertainty of their grades. He made it his mission to help alleviate student anxiety by getting his students their grades back either the same day or, in the case of exams, the same night. In addition, Yeager makes every attempt to be as accessible to his students as possible, for example, by responding to student emails within a 5 minute time period. On one day, Yeager was sick, had no voice and was forced to teach mainly utilizing his slides. When he was unable to post grades the same day, rather posting them the following morning, his inbox was flooded with emails from students concerned about his health and wellbeing.

Personally, Yeager identifies his teaching style as engaging: he makes sure that every student in the room can hear him, he walks around the classroom to keep their attention and he pauses to ask students what they need from him to better understand the subject matter. “There are students who are going to try and avoid eye contact and who don’t want to speak much,” said Yeager. “You respect that to whatever degree they are comfortable with, but some people don’t realize that they want to be engaged until you start doing it. So I try to test the waters to see if they really do want to have a more active learning experience.”

Contributing to his engaging style of teaching is Yeager’s background at Hartwick College, a small liberal arts school, where the faculty to student ratio was ten to one. In wanting to make sure that he provides his students the same type of learning environment where faculty actively engage their students, Yeager makes it a point to learn the name of each student in his classes and even hands out their papers in the order of where each student sits. “I constantly strive to know which students might need more attention or how I can best relate the material to the students major or interests,” said Yeager. His goals in the classroom are to make each student realize that they are actually a little more interested in the topic than they had originally thought and to get each student to have independent thought on the discussion topic that they then share to other students. Yeager enjoys the moments when students reference material they have learned in other courses and then ask how it relates to the topic being discussed.

Yeager credits both Dr. Kessler and Dr. Broussard with providing the opportunity to become a better teacher. “Dr. Kessler created a framework by which her teaching assistants had the opportunity to develop their teaching style and learn what works best for them,” Yeager said. “She gives her teaching assistants a better idea of what it would be like to teach a class on their own, which is terrific for graduate students who wonder if they can teach.” When describing Dr. Broussard, Yeager said “he is a force of nature and I don’t know how he does it all!” Dr. Broussard provides individual research projects for his students and engages in an amazing amount of independent thought for each of the courses he teaches. Yeager commented on how Dr. Broussard utilized his TA’s to shoulder some of the work and said, “It’s really exciting that we get to learn some things that maybe we didn’t know coming in.  Just being given the opportunity to do advanced techniques in Microbiology 421W is very rewarding.  It’s nice when students get to do something that they previously thought to be out of reach.”

Yeager believes that his involvement in the Undergraduate Research in Science and Engineering (URISE) Program has allowed him to take the things he has learned from being a teaching assistant and apply them to a different environment. The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department is very proud of Calvin Yeager and looks forward to watching his career progress.