Each year, the Provost’s Office culls through nomination letters, student evaluations, peer recommendations and other selected criteria and emerges with its winners of the Provost’s Awards for Outstanding Teaching—awards established by the Provost to reward and encourage excellence in teaching. A maximum of six awards may be given from among the entire university’s faculty. This year, three of the five awards went to professors from the College of Engineering: Dr. Sue Nokes, Dr. Kimberly Ward Anderson and Dr. James Fox. They were honored at a formal ceremony during the Founders Day Ceremony held at Worsham Theater on February 22.
Sue Nokes (Ph.D. North Carolina State, 1990) joined the College of Engineering’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering (BAE) Department in 1995 as an assistant professor. She was promoted to associate professor in 2001 and became the BAE Chair in 2011. She is currently researching biofuel production from plant material—specifically, the conversion of the plant material back into sugar and the fermentation of that sugar into biofuels. Her hope is that the biomass produced on the farm will lead to a crude bio-butanol that, once refined, can be used as an alternative source of fuel. Farmers would be able to produce the crude fuel on their own farms and increase their profits, while the public would reap the benefits of inexpensive, organic and environmentally-friendly fuel for their vehicles.
Kimberly Ward Anderson (Ph.D. Carnegie Mellon, 1986) is the Gill Eminent Professor of Chemical Engineering and the 2011 winner of the Henry Mason Lutes Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Anderson arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1987 and has held numerous directorships and faculty associate positions during her 25 years with the College of Engineering. As the director of the IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education Research Training) and REU (Research for Undergraduates) programs, Dr. Anderson is at the forefront of teaching the best research practices to undergraduate and graduate students even as she conducts her own research into drug delivery systems for cancer therapies, as well as other cancer-related topics.
James (Jimmy) Fox (Ph.D. Iowa, 2005) is a Raymond-Blythe Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and has been a faculty member since 2005. Dr. Fox has directed two NSF funded REU programs, which engage undergraduate students into sediment transport and environmental hydraulics research. One of Dr. Fox’s current research initiatives studies the ability of sediments in streams and rivers to cleanse the water of highly dissolved nutrient loads. He is finding that like many stream and river processes, hydrologic forcing is balanced with negative biological feedback. Dr. Fox’s work towards ecological sustainability of stream and soil ecosystems is the focus of his current sabbatical in central California.
We sat down with the three Provost’s Award winners to discuss excellence in teaching. How do they know when they are getting through to students? Who gave them insight into what makes for effective teaching? What do they hope students take with him after leaving their class for the last time?
The three of you received Provost’s Awards for Outstanding Teaching. All humility aside, why do you think students and fellow faculty members consider you to be excellent teachers?
Sue Nokes (S.N.): I can’t say I have the answer to that! My guess is that they appreciate the time I take to learn everybody’s name and notice when they’re having problems. I don’t think I convey the subject matter any differently than other professors.
I try to do new things in the classroom—not so much new technology, but new ways of delivering the material. For example, when I teach enzyme inhibition, something I have found that works well is requiring the students to model competitive inhibition vs. non-competitive inhibition using Play-Dough. They can see how the enzyme and the substrate connect using Play-Dough more easily than reading a formula on the chalkboard. It also doesn’t hurt that they all like to play with Play Dough!
Kimberly Ward Anderson (K.A.): I strive to be a well-rounded teacher. In addition to teaching in the classroom, I get a lot of students involved in research. I direct the IGERT program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, so I spend a lot of time training graduate students. I also direct the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, so, between the two, I am quite involved with students outside the classroom in addition to my involvement with them in the classroom.
James Fox (J.F.): On the first day of class, I make a seating chart and require the students to sit in their assigned seats throughout the semester. Some student grumble about it at first, but I feel it enables me to learn their names and interact with them better. In my classes, I lecture for a period of time, but once I break into example problems, I include the students and try to keep them engaged.
What tips or examples did you pick up from past teachers and implement when you teach?
K.A.: What mainly comes to mind are things I was exposed to that I don’t want to do! I’ve seen lectures where the students didn’t have access to the PowerPoint presentation and the students couldn’t take notes fast enough to keep up with the lecturer. So any time I teach a class that is theoretical and has equations, I go the old-fashioned way of writing the equations on the board. It allows them to stay with me.
Also, I grew up in a time when I was the only woman in many of my classes and I was very intimidated about asking questions. As a result, I often stop and ask, “Do you have questions?” And if I see someone who becomes red-faced when they ask a question, I’ll say, “That’s a really good question.” I try to get them to have enough confidence to ask questions if they don’t understand something and I let them know that no question is “stupid.” Along these lines, instead of always showing them the correct way to work problems, I spend a lot of time in my classes asking students to show me how they would solve the problems we are working on. I emphasize to them that even the wrong answer is beneficial as students can also learn by seeing other students’ mistakes. If a student presents a wrong solution, we will spend time discussing why the solution is wrong and how it can be corrected.
J.F.: There were two people: my father, Jim Fox, and my Ph.D. advisor, Thanos Papanicolaou. I grew up in the construction industry and worked with my father, who is a general contractor, for most of those years. On the construction site, he was always teaching. He consistently broke projects down into simple pieces and then built them back up. I think that’s a good method for engineering students to remember. My advisor, Thanos Papanicolaou brought a lot of energy to the classroom. He taught me that it’s okay to get excited and expressive to get students’ attention. So I try to bring a lot of energy to the class.
S.N.: When I was a newly appointed faculty member, a professor from University of Cincinnati shared an acronym called N.E.S.T. during a workshop I attended. N.E.S.T. stands for: Nurturing, Empowerment, Structure and Teamwork. He said those are the four components of a good class. I have kept those attributes in mind as I have developed my courses over the years.
Nurturing isn’t holding their hands, but caring—paying attention to who is present and who isn’t. Empowerment is giving the students a say in how their course is structured. I often allow the class to determine how their exams and homework assignments for the semester will be weighted—with parameters, of course. Structure allows them to know what to expect every day and, by encouraging teamwork, the students help each other learn.
The percentage I use for each aspect changes as the students progress through the program. Nurturing—or moral support—comes into play more for freshmen than juniors or seniors who have been through the typical struggles of college students. Also, empowerment makes more sense for older students than those just getting started. So, the attributes don’t change, but the attention I give to each depends on the class.
How do you know if you’re successfully communicating complex material in a way students can grasp?
J.F.: Often, I will work through an example problem to get us started. After that, I’ll have the students work together on a problem for a few minutes. During that time, I’ll walk around and find out what’s causing hang-ups. By doing so, I usually discover one hang-up that is confusing 20 or so students. Then, I’ll jump back in and focus on that point.
S.N.: By the questions they ask me. I like to teach interactively, so usually the students are talking to me. If they’re not talking, they’re not with me. If I am getting thoughtful questions, then I know they are engaged and understanding the material.
K.A.: Engaging the class and watching their faces when I’m presenting. When there are a few students left in the classroom after the class, I’ll stop one and ask, “Is this making sense to you?” And, of course, the exam is the ultimate determinant of whether or not they got it.
If the majority of the class misses something on the exam that I assumed they understood, I’ll go back and teach it again because at that point, it’s my problem, not theirs.
What is most gratifying for you as a teacher?
J.F.: I think the most gratifying thing is when I see a student who initially struggles and then is successful. I expect the A students to get an A in my class (or at least a high B); but when the students who are C students are really working hard and then get it…that’s the most rewarding thing for me.
K.A.: Watching former students walk across the stage and get their diploma on graduation day. When I see that, I know they’ve made it. Knowing I had them in the classroom is incredibly gratifying.
S.N. Watching the students develop. As a rural Ohio kid, I have a soft spot for the rural Kentucky kids who come into the program. I get to watch them get their feet under them, make progress and take leadership roles.
Aside from the material, what do you hope your students will possess when they walk out of your class, lab or mentor session for the last time?
S.N.: Critical thinking—the ability to take in the material, think it through and not assume everything they read is correct. If they possess critical thinking, they can take what they learn and put it to use.
K.A.: The thing I try to emphasize is independent thinking and confidence. I teach them technical material in the class, but what I really want them to leave with is confidence in their ability to learn things on their own. When they get into the industry, they aren’t going to see problems from the exam. They’re going to see things they’ve never seen before and they’ve got to have the confidence to tackle new problems.
J.F.: An excitement about the profession. I hold engineering to be a noble profession and I think that the students need to be challenged that they are the engineers of the future. They should embrace that responsibility, be happy about it and put the well-being of others above making a lot of money and other pursuits.