Being an Astronomy Student Grader and Teaching Assistant

Erica Keller

CDC Spotlight on Student Employees

Erica Keller ’15, Astronomy Student

Professor Juan R. Burciaga spilled a handful of blue, green, and red pens on the one oval table in the classroom. The eight students in the room leaned over and snatched a pen. One student furrowed her eyebrows. She tried a blue pen, then a green pen but neither had ink. She chose one of the abandoned red pens and hesitated before marking the paper in front of her. Erica Keller ’15 said, “I feel really bad.” She believed the color discouraged students from mastering the material. Keller instead yearned to encourage the students to improve. She said, “The point of us grading is to tell them when they’re doing a good job, but also give them helpful comments when they can improve.”

Keller joined seven other students and Professor Burciaga every Wednesday from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. They gathered in the library in room 618 to grade the latest homework or quiz for Survey of the Universe. Keller, who applied to Mount Holyoke after her sister’s friend piqued her interest in the college, is an Astronomy major and Gender Studies minor. She has worked with the department since her first year. Over the span of four years, Keller discovered new passions by sharing her love of astronomy with others.

Keller took Survey of the Universe during her first semester. Although the course was only meant to fulfill a distribution requirement, the studies captivated her and she declared a major in astronomy. Since then, she would either grade or work as a teaching assistant every semester since then. When Professor Burciaga sought after a student grader and teaching assistant, the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, Professor Darby Dyar, recommended Keller. He recalled his first impression of her during a meeting: “I think one of the things that impressed me was that she was very willing to tackle the hard questions.”

The job responsibilities for a student grader remain the same. Student graders meet once a week. Each student is responsible for grading a single question. During the first few minutes of the session, students review the questions and call out which they prefer to grade.  Keller waited until everyone picked their preference during the session before selecting one of the more tedious long-formatted answers. She worked alongside Scarlett Glackin to tackle the short answer response about the order of the solar system. Keller kept the professor’s needs in mind. During her time at Mount Holyoke, five different professors have taught the introduction to astronomy course. She said, “Every professor has a different style. They’re looking for different things when they’re grading.” Professor Burciaga, in particular, requested that student graders read through every essay or equation thoroughly. He usually docked points for small mistakes, such as a miscalculation, rather than mark an answer totally wrong. “I think,” he said, “it’s very easy to give so many points off that they no longer learn from that question.” For short answers, Professor Burciaga searches for proficient communication of the material. He said, “One of the things I want students to do is not only improve on what they know but how do they report what they know.” Keller said that being a grader helped her identify the elements for the perfect response in her own coursework.

In addition to her job as a grader, Keller is also a teaching assistant for Professor Burciaga’s Astrophysics I: Stars/Galaxies class. She hosts clinic hours from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. every Sunday and from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. every Monday. The course is the first class above a 100 level that she is a teaching assistant for. She looks over all of the lecture material and tries to master the content. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘this is a tricky subject so come talk to me, we can clear up ideas,’” Professor Burciaga said. They rarely meet though to discuss his 200-level course.  He said, “I can give her something and not worry about it. I know it will be taken care of.” The shared responsibility of educating his students solidified a professional relationship. Keller said, “I know that eventually I have to apply for jobs and these professors know me the best.”

The job search, however, is not her first priority. “First and foremost,” Keller said, “I’m really focused on doing my role in SGA.” She is the Vice President to the Student Government Association. Her list of extracurricular activities does not stop there. She is a research assistant for Professor Alex Pope from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Keller uses computer programming to “look at galaxies farther away and [that] have a lot of dust in them.”

In respect to her plans after graduation, Keller strategized different approaches with the help of Kelly Woods of the Career Development Center. She plans to apply to jobs in sectors such as higher education as well as start-up tech companies. Both her parents and sister are teachers. Her passion, however, differs from the “family job.” She said, “I took more education classes and decided on what I’m really interested is looking at how technology is used in the classroom to teach science.” In the long term, Keller wants to develop software that can be used in the classroom. “The experience of working with students and knowing how they may react to certain questions and being able to learn how to give helpful feedback will help me in that capacity.” By her senior year, Keller mastered her hectic schedule. Other than taking 12 credits this semester, she said, “I live on Google calendars.”

At the end of the session, Keller helped lessen the stack of another student. Professor Burciaga said of Keller, “She is always the last to finish.” Once she is done with her responsibilities, Keller does not waste time. She makes sure that as a team player she can assist anyone who is in need.