2014 Outstanding Master's University and College Professor of the Year
Professor of geology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Thanks very much to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for this amazing honor and to Rene for the kind introduction!
I believe that students learn science best by doing science. Students in my smaller classes "do science" by collaborating with each other and me on authentic research. In my large introductory classes, I try to instill an appreciation for science by involving students in examining data and developing and testing hypotheses to explain those data. In all my courses, I aim to engage students with inquiry-based methods and active, collaborative and applied learning. But it hasn't always been that way.
When I began teaching in 1979, the standard pedagogy (we didn't use that word then) was lecturing. Even in graduate courses with two students, faculty lectured! Thus, my goal as a novice teacher was to become an excellent lecturer. I hoped to emulate my PhD adviser, Stephen Jay Gould—a superb lecturer who captivated students, inciting them to applaud nearly every lecture. I was certain that if my lectures were clear, well organized and followed the syllabus predictably, I too could be an excellent teacher.
The approach seemed to work. My student evaluations were strong, I attracted graduate students and within 10 years, I was a full professor and the University of Mississippi's Outstanding School of Engineering Faculty Member. Yet, I felt myself growing dissatisfied, even bored, with my teaching. Perhaps that's why I welcomed opportunities for challenging administrative positions, first at Ole Miss and then at the National Science Foundation. Administration allowed mobility, and I accepted department chair positions at University of North Dakota and then UNCW (trading in Dakota blizzards and floods for Carolina hurricanes and floods).
During my 15 years of administration, the academic world began to change. I don't think I was aware of these changes consciously, but I began inventing new pedagogies in my teaching (although I still didn't know that word). I found myself trying to enliven my courses (and enjoy teaching more) by making them more interactive. At North Dakota, I introduced hands-on research, using samples from my field work, into my graduate paleoecology course, and I started pausing my undergraduate lectures to allow students to brainstorm ideas in small groups. And the students seemed to like it, reporting in focus groups that these activities aided their learning.
When I returned to the classroom full time in 2003, I was eager to develop my new pedagogies further (by then I had learned that word). I'd had success incorporating authentic research into my graduate classes at both UND and UNCW, so why not try it with undergraduates! I refocused the Invertebrate Paleontology laboratory from traditional exercises (answering questions about fossil specimens) to one in which students conduct semester-long original research. We collect samples in the field from which students extract and identify the fossils. They develop hypotheses for testing, collect and analyze data, and present their results orally and in a team-authored paper. Finally, we present our results at a Geological Society of America meeting. The approach promotes student learning objectives and allows students to experience research from conception to dissemination. And the students seem to like it! Even last year, when they ended up counting 23,000 specimens of a tiny species a few millimeters in size, the students remained enthusiastic, and half the class presented posters at the national GSA meeting.
I love to teach. I love to take a "lecture" class of 100 non-science majors and get them excited about prehistoric life and even evolution—a topic not uniformly welcomed in the South. I make the effort to know each student individually, and they learn my quirks (my Johnny Depp obsession and propensity to show photos of my kids). My classes are interactive; we use group work, hands-on experience with fossils and demonstrations. For instance, in the "dance of DNA," students pretend to be different nucleotide molecules and team up to build chains of amino acids portrayed by other students. Students enjoy the atmosphere of play, and it enhances their willingness to invest in potentially controversial course content. I enjoy setting a good example—you might find me with a blanket strapped to my arms and legs, enacting pterodactyl locomotion, or chasing a rubber chicken to illustrate Tyrannosaurus rex predation tactics!
Congratulations to all those honored today. As educators, we share the excitement of our fields with others—from college undergraduate and graduate students to middle-school teachers thirsty for knowledge and second graders studying dinosaurs. We stir a curiosity in our students; we enable them to learn by doing; we teach them to think critically, question conventional ideas and use the tools of our disciplines. Our job doesn't end when we step out of the classroom; we teach in the field, on the phone, via email, in vans and airports taking students to conferences and at social events. We are passionate and compassionate, committed to our students' personal and professional growth and delighted in their transformation through their college years and beyond. We ourselves are always learning. That's why teaching is so fun!
Thank you to these students, who have energized, challenged and entertained me and put up with my obsessions (Monty Python and Devo preceded Johnny Depp). I thank my colleagues for friendship, support and inspiration. Many thanks to my husband Jonathan, our children Timothy and Katherine and their spouses, my brother David, and all my extended family and friends for their support. And my humble thanks to CASE and the Carnegie Foundation for giving me an award for doing what I love to do!
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