Learning science, al FRezCa

When is a cafeteria more than a cafeteria? When it’s a bustling drop-in tutorial space for first-year science students. Go inside FRezCa, the first-year residence cafeteria tutorial.
Students work with chemistry tutors at a recent FRezCa session in the Royal Victoria College Dining Hall. / Photo: Neale McDevitt

By James Martin

During a typical weekday lunch rush, hundreds of hungry students pack into the Royal Victoria College Dining Hall. Dinnertime is just as busy. But, for a few hours in between the craziness, the room is a relative ghost town. When Jim Avik Ghoshdastidar, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry and a TA for CHEM 110, noticed this, he didn’t just see empty tables – he saw an opportunity for hands-on homework help.

From 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Thursday, a bright corner of the RVC Dining Hall is transformed into FRezCa, the first-year residence cafeteria tutorial. Ghoshdastidar and his fellow TAs – for CHEM 110, as well as CHEM 212 and 222, Physics 101 and 131 – are on hand, as are TEAM (Tomlinson Engagement Award for Mentoring) student mentors. (Biology came on board last month, with BIOL 111 TEAM mentors attending several days a week. Math will join FRezCa next semester; there will be TAs on hand for MATH 140 and 141, and hopefully 133.)

A double-sided whiteboard divides the space into two sides: chemistry and physics. The room buzzes with chatter about positive charges and rearrangement reactions. Between 60 and 80 students come out each afternoon. There are regulars who hunker down for the whole two hours, huddling with friends over laptops as they work through the week’s homework, raising a hand when they’re stumped. Other students pop in briefly with specific questions. The TAs buzz from table to table, offering tips, explanations and encouragement. If you saw a typical FRezCA afternoon in a student recruitment video, the smiles and easygoing environment of shared learning would look…utterly fake. But FRezCA is the real thing, a grassroots initiative that Ghoshdastidar hopes can “support our students by meeting them where they are and creating a comfortable environment they can learn from and teach one another.”

Ghoshdastidar is a big believer in bringing academics into residence life. He’s lived in rez for nine out of his own 10-year (and counting) academic career, beginning with Queen’s, where he did his two undergrad degrees, then Acadia for his Master’s. In the four years that he’s been at McGill, he’s lived and worked in student residences as either a faculty mentor or a Hall coordinator.

“When I was a TA at Acadia, we started a help center and I liked that model of providing one-on-one help support,” says the Cambridge, Ontario, native. In the two days before last year’s CHEM 110 final exam, he experimented with the idea of doing something similar at McGill by conducting what he called the Residence Travelling Roadshow: 24 hours of office hours, held in two- and three-hour blocks at nine different student residences. This year, he’s trying a different approach by spreading out the time over the semester – and putting down roots at RVC.

“Right now, I’m one of two TAs for a class with 1,100 students,” he says, “so I wanted to offer more opportunities for one-on-one support. This year, we thought we could be more proactive in offering supplemental support: Let’s get the students, the TAs and the TEAM mentors all in one place. Instead of holding office hours that nobody attends in buildings that nobody can find, let’s bring everyone together in one central location. The RVC is perfect. Most students already know it. It’s near the metro, so it’s convenient for students coming from off-campus. It’s close to most of the large lecture halls. The tables are great for group-work. And you don’t have to walk up the hill.”

Sean Condon comes to FRezCa “pretty much every day.” The first-year life sciences student uses the FRezCa space to do his weekly online physics assignments, which use a system called CAPA that gives students instant feedback: solve the equation and your answer is bathed in a shade of green that grateful students have dubbed “holyCAPAgreen.” (The hue’s official HTML name is “PaleGreen,” but Wikipedia has been occasionally hacked to say otherwise.) Condon appreciates having TAs at FRezCa, “but even more so it’s the other students. If I see that someone has green on a question that I can’t solve, I’ll say ‘Hey, how’d you do that?’ and they’re usually willing to lend their help. It’s a communal learning environment.”

Condon is taking CHEM 110 and PHYS 101, so he spends time on both sides of the whiteboard divider – but he finds that he uses FRezCa in different ways for the different courses. “Chemistry is an area of strength for me and physics is an area of major weakness,” he says. “When I’m over there – ” he waves toward the chemistry side “– I try to help other people. Over here, I’m more on the receiving end.”

“Science can be very isolating,” notes Anita Parmar, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) strategy adviser in McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services. (FRezCa is a partnership between TLS, Student Housing and Hospitality Services, T-PULSE, and the Faculties of Engineering, Science, Medicine and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.) Parmar holds a PhD in physics, and knows all too well the great value community can have in learning. “Just to know that you’re not the only one who finds this particular homework assignment difficult can make a huge difference. It’s nice to have a central, comfortable space. You don’t want to be in prison when you’re doing homework.”

Even students who do their homework on their own think FRezCa is useful. Hannah Faris comes to FRezCa with specific questions about tricky questions. A lecture hall filled with 400 or 500 students just isn’t the forum to ask those kinds of granular questions. “The lectures are more focused on the concepts, not the particular problems,” says the first-year student. “Then we get the homework assignment and sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, okaaaay….’ I like that everyone here at FRezCa is trying to figure things out. You’ll overhear someone working on a certain problem and you can talk to them about. Interacting with people who are working on the same problems is helpful. I like knowing there’s this support when I need it, as opposed to being left out in the cold. They’ve got our backs.”

Ghoshdastidar reports that the average CHEM 110 midterm grades were higher this semester than in the past—thanks not only to FRezCa, but to other recent initiatives to increase supplemental learning, such as SciCram (free, 4-6 hour midterm and final exam reviews led by TAs) and online homework. (Earlier this year, Ghoshdastidar also won a “mini-grant” from the SALTISE organization for his project to use video podcasts to increase TA accessibility.) Higher grades are fantastic, no question, but he’s also excited about changes he’s seen in overall student engagement—which is no small feat for introductory courses that have hundreds of students.

“Whether it’s at FRezCa, or SciCram, or through discussion boards or email, there’s a real authenticity to our interactions,” says Ghoshdastidar. “I’m always floored by the talent and work ethic of our students. So many come hungry to FRezCa searching for answers and to understand. Their ‘But I want to know!’ questions really inspire me. My hope is through programs like this one we can reduce some of the barriers they face and create a strong network of support – among their peers, undergraduate mentors, TAs and professors that work in concert – to foster that success. As someone who owes a great debt to my first-year chemistry professors, it’s nice to know that I have an opportunity to pay it forward.”

Nicolas Belliveau is a CHEM 110 student who comes to FRezCa when he finds a week’s readings particularly challenging. Right now, the sessions are only available for first-year courses, so he’s wondering about the years ahead. “It’s great to get the extra help on an assignment when I need it, and it definitely motivates me to complete my homework,” he says, “but I’m a bit worried about next year, because we won’t have FRezCa.”