Student Spotlight: Michael Ginsberg, PhD Candidate in Earth and Environmental Engineering

by | Feb 3, 2020

Michael Ginsberg is a Doctor of Engineering Science candidate in the Earth and Environmental Engineering program at Columbia University, and holds an MS in Sustainability Management from Columbia. He specializes in solar energy integration into the electrical grid and has consulted for the Departments of State and Defense on energy management and renewable energy issues. At the Columbia CTL, Michael serves as the 2018-20 CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning) Fellow, who helps to promote effective teaching practices on campus by connecting with other universities working to improve STEM teaching development. 

In this spotlight story, Michael discusses his experience as a CIRTL Fellow, which has entailed working with the CTL to establish a Teaching as Research (TAR) assessment program on campus as well as working with peers on cultivating a culture of evidence-based teaching and collaboration across disciplines at Columbia. Lastly, Michael offers teaching strategies that graduate student instructors might consider incorporating into their own practice.

“I have learned that evidence-based teaching is a learned skill that takes new knowledge and practice. Being a CIRTL Fellow with the CTL has allowed me to explore my interest in cultivating a culture of evidence-based teaching and collaboration across disciplines at Columbia.”

Michael Ginsberg, PhD Candidate in Earth and Environmental Science
Role at the CTL: CIRTL Fellow, 2018-20

1. What motivated you to apply to be a CIRTL Fellow at the CTL?

Educators have a tremendous influence on their students. They have the potential to inspire or discourage and the opportunity to shape the future not just through their research, but through their students. This entails a great deal of responsibility. In my experience both as a student and educator, middle and high school teacher, and technical trainer, I have learned that evidence-based teaching is a learned skill that takes new knowledge and practice. Being a CIRTL Fellow with the CTL has allowed me to explore my interest in cultivating a culture of evidence-based teaching and collaboration across disciplines at Columbia. Also, I have been involved with Columbia since 2011 when I completed my Masters. Now returning as a doctoral student, working with the CTL to establish a Teaching as Research (TAR) program on campus has been a great opportunity for me to give back and make a positive contribution to Columbia, an institution that has been so formative for my own career.

2. You have participated in the CIRTL fellow program for two years. What have you enjoyed most about your work in this program?

Being a CIRTL fellow has been incredibly enriching. I have most enjoyed developing the asynchronous online TAR course for the Columbia community that we will pilot in Spring 2020. Also, I enjoyed taking the CIRTL course “Planning your TAR Project” developed by Denise Pope and offered every Fall where I got to plan my own TAR project. It has been great to be a part of the TAR leader learning community, and gain exposure to education research through the CTL Journal Club. Through all of these experiences, I have a much better understanding of how being a committed educator provides value to a university and is an integral part of a successful academic career.

3. You recently spoke as an invited panelist at the CIRTL forum conference. What was that experience like?

The conference made me feel connected to the vibrant community of teaching and learning professionals throughout the network. Speaking as a panelist was a real honor and an affirmation of the importance of my work with the CTL. It gave me a platform to share my experience developing a TAR program and to reach out for collaboration. Preparing my remarks on being a change leader and on diversity, inclusivity, and equity, made me think anew about my own life path in promoting positive change within universities, and at times pushing the envelope, and just how aligned my work with the CTL is with this mission. In addition, the conference motivated me to become even more involved with the network through new research partnerships.

4. Looking back on your engagements with the CTL, in what ways has interacting with peers strengthened your own teaching practices? 

Working with my peers, especially from different disciplines, has strengthened my own teaching practices. In particular, participating in the Innovative Teaching Summer Institute (ITSI) helped me revise the design of group activities. For instance, creating specific roles in a project-based group activity to develop a new solar cell (e.g. engineer, researcher, communications officer) helps undergraduate students think about how best to leverage their skillset in group projects and ensure a fair division of the work.

As the co-leader of the new CIRTL peer-led TAR learning community, I have benefited greatly from learning about best practices in a variety of topics, from conducting qualitative data analysis to classroom observation through the COPUS framework. Surprisingly, gaining exposure to research methods from different disciplines and epistemological viewpoints has made me think about new ways to approach my dissertation.

5. You have participated in several online CIRTL events. What were these experiences like? What about these events would you recommend to other graduate students?

Most of my engagement with the CIRTL network has been online. I have been delightfully surprised both by the quality and longevity of these engagements (2+ years now). CIRTL and CTL makes a great effort to include students remotely and this has been vital to my ability to be a fellow, especially the first year when I was often off-campus. The synchronous “Planning your TAR Project”  was an excellent experience for me and I believe any student interested in understanding TAR should take this course and go through the process of developing a TAR proposal on their own. Be sure to allocate 4-6 hours a week for the course. It is also my hope that the course I am developing with Chris Chen tailored to the Columbia community will be a great introduction to TAR.

I had the pleasure of facilitating the All Network TAR Presentations in October 2019 and this was a great way to gain exposure to education research being done by my peers and to build out my network. In addition, I often participate in the CTL Journal Club remotely and I have found the conversations to be just as engaging as those in person.

In my experience, CIRTL and CTL make every effort to be inclusive through offering programming online, and to support graduate students in their pursuit of academic careers. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the CTL for much of my doctoral career.

Teaching Strategies

Connect with the students and figure out "what's in it for them"

At the beginning of each topic in a course I like to start with the students – their interests and motivations for being in the class. I have a group brainstorm and list the topics that the students would like to learn about. Of course there are certain subjects that I must cover but to as great of an extent as possible I integrate their interests and inputs into the course. I think motivation is absolutely vital to learning – a student that has a stake in the material will spend much more time interacting with the material. Perhaps this is informed by my experience teaching grade school students and adults but people need to know why the material is relevant to their lives. If you run out of time use the “parking lot” by leaving a space for questions on sticky notes, which could be anonymous. Make it easy for students to ask questions, sometimes people don’t have time to come to office hours if they are working full time or are just shy.

Link theory with project-based learning (PBL) / simulations

Recognizing that everyone has a different learning style, tangible, “real world” assignments are vital to cementing theory and textbook learning. I know from personal experience in learning a variety of STEM subjects that context is key. A PBL activity also gives students a low-stakes opportunity to see if they like the work they would be doing after finishing their degree and to see how their skills are best leveraged in groups. Take care to structure the PBL so that work is distributed equitably.

Keep a journal and ask for honest feedback on your public speaking

It may feel like a whirlwind when you first start teaching. It is a bit like acting in that it requires you to be fully engaged presenting before an audience. It is also a lot like improvisation. Despite all of your preparation, and I do write out my lectures as if I were giving a speech, there will be a lot of observations and changes you make while you are teaching – keep a journal to write them down as soon as possible after each class session (e.g. students were confused by activity x, or this way of showing the formula seemed to resonate more with students.) If you do not it is likely you will forget all of these observations. Teaching a class is a constant iterative cycle of improvement.

Also, do not be afraid to invite your peers or even your faculty advisor(s) to watch you teach. This will be unnerving for you but there are just so many things you will not be able to pick up on when you are teaching. For instance, while working as a technical trainer my client and mentor, whom herself is an expert trainer, would watch me and write down every time I said “um” or notice that my writing was slanted on the board or that I was standing in one place for too long. She would tell me right after watching me teach and expect me to make changes to my style immediately. This high level of attention and expectation will rapidly improve your teaching and public speaking skills.