Tufts Math Professor James Adler and Ph.D. student Sarah Bray write math problems on a chalkboard.

From Tufts to the GIFT of Teaching

Mathematics Professor James Adler and Ph.D. candidate Sarah Bray collaborate in the classroom as part of the Graduate Institute for Teaching (GIFT) program

By Kristin Livingston, A05

When brainstorming the next lesson for their Applied Calculus II course, Sarah Bray, Ph.D. 2016, and James Adler, assistant professor of mathematics, have a weekly huddle in his office.

“How about a loan program,” he’ll say. “Asking them to calculate a monthly pay-off to demonstrate a sequence movement series.”

“Or the Eiffel Tower,” she might add. “We could have them compute the total force of wind on the face of the tower given the pressure function.”

Two things are remarkable about this scenario: the partnership and the real-world application. Bray isn’t an average graduate student teaching assistant, but a Ph.D. candidate who is co-teaching a course with a Tufts professor as part of the Graduate Institute for Teaching (GIFT), a program designed to prepare doctoral students for an academic career in teaching at the university level. And the lesson she’s devising with Adler doesn’t keep the numbers on the page for her students—it brings the world to their classroom.

Workshops that Work

The first phase of the GIFT program takes place during the summer. GIFT fellows attend pedagogy workshops that stress diverse learning styles for a diverse set of students.

“We know that teaching is a fluid phenomenon,” says Sinaia Nathanson, associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and director of the GIFT program. “It is never stagnant. Future university faculty need to be cognizant of diverse audiences, academically and ethnically, and integrate considerations of learning style, cultural background, and academic capabilities by tailoring their teaching, their technology, and classroom engagement to new generations.”

In the second phase of the program, fellows co-teach a course during the academic year. Bray and Adler are doing just that by taking template lessons and mixing up the format with ideas Bray gleaned from her GIFT workshops. Each week they plan lessons together—such as swapping hour-long lectures for 15-20 minute lessons followed by group problem sets and quizzes—and try them out on their own cohort of the class, which is split three ways between Bray, Adler, and another professor. They share what worked and problem-solve what didn’t; each week is progressively better than the last for themselves and their students.

“A student who might be too shy or feeling further behind than others, might not raise a hand in a lecture but will speak up in a smaller group setting,” Bray says. The weekly quizzes and collaborative nature of our classroom have inspired these students to step up, she adds. “From asking me to check their work at the start of the semester to now approaching me to show me the different ways they reached a solution – it’s amazing.”

No Deep Ends

The collaborative and creative nature of the classroom extends to Bray and Adler’s relationship. “Teaching with Sarah was fun because she’s so gung ho about the lessons,” Adler says. “She would try something out and tell me if it did or didn’t work, and I’d do the same. While I was technically her ‘mentor’, it was really teamwork.”

And when she begins her new position teaching math at the University of Michigan, Bray won’t be diving into the deep end of the classroom. GIFT has given her the opportunity to lay out inquiry-based learning techniques in a real-world setting—and make it work. “Part of the reason why Michigan chose me is because of this Tufts experience,” she says, “And I’m really grateful.”

“GIFT is a unique program,” adds Nathanson. “Most universities invest primarily in training their own TAs. At Tufts, we reframe it to also focus on our Ph.D. candidates. We solidify their professional development and their teaching portfolio by providing the GIFT fellows with intense training to support their current work as well as their future engagements at other universities.”

The Perfect Jumbo Equation

As an undergraduate at Hamilton College, Bray pursued her passion of math while being a star on the lacrosse team. Much of her free time was dedicated to sports. At Tufts, she’s been able to volunteer as an assistant coach for the Tufts Women’s Lacrosse team while enjoying the benefits of graduate school: first-name-based relationships with professors, teaching at a faculty level, and immersing herself in the math community.

“At Tufts, your voice as a mathematician is heard. Ideas are shared. And your advisors and mentors want you to find yourself and be a balanced, whole person—like making time to coach and teach a class,” Bray says.

She chose Tufts because, she says, teaching was always an end goal.

“Tufts has a great reputation for turning out strong math teachers. I want to be that kind of female role model as a professor,” Bray says. “And it was clear that if I wanted to find harmony between teaching and research, GIFT was a great place to start.”