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From the College of Natural Sciences
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A Peek Into the Minds of Award-Winning Educators

A Peek Into the Minds of Award-Winning Educators

The College of Natural Sciences is currently celebrating Discovery Education Week to promote and discuss science education throughout the college.

Exceptional teachers—amazing individuals who strive to not only inform, but also to inspire their students—abound in Natural Sciences. On Thursday, September 8, dozens of these award-winning faculty members will host visits from other CNS course instructors and showcase what happens in their classrooms. Dozens more acclaimed teaching faculty will lead small group discussions with their colleagues on the topic of teaching. In anticipation of this Teaching Discovery Day, we sat down with three educators who have each won numerous teaching awards, to get their thoughts on teaching.

Meet Fatima Fakhreddine, Calvin Lin and Theresa O'Halloran.

Fatima Fakhreddine

Fatima Fakhreddine is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. Her teaching awards include the Texas Exes Teaching Award in 2003, the Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award in 2010 and the Dads' Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship in 2016.

On the joys and challenges of teaching:

Nothing gives me more pleasure than interacting with my students in class. As I am teaching, I love to converse with my students. I am always thinking about questions to ask in class that would promote critical thinking and engage students.

Throughout the years I have had students who had serious hardships as freshmen. I had students who lost love ones, students who had to go every weekend back home to help take care of an ailing parent. I had students who had to work late nights to be able to pay for school. It was definitely very inspiring to see these very young people face incredible challenges with bravery, all while keeping up with their school work and studying for classes.

The diversity of our campus is incredibly inspiring. However, it also brings along a major issue: our students' backgrounds and academic experiences are very diverse. This presents a serious challenge for educators. I try to create, encourage, and reinforce interactions that generate partnerships in the learning/teaching process…[such as] weekly discussion sessions where students work in groups and rely on each other while the teaching assistants and I facilitate our students' interactions and encourage an in-depth discussion of the material. I believe that by encouraging students to work together and learn from each other, we are helping them develop appreciation, respect for each other, and lasting friendships.

On her keys to success:

Being [excellent as an educator requires being] able to promote students' motivation and curiosity, keeping students actively engaged and gently pushing them out of their comfort zones, directing them to ultimately become in charge of their own learning. [It's wise to] judge the quality of your teaching by the level of learning it produces. There is no teaching in the absence of learning.

On what's changed over the years:

Technology has fundamentally changed the teaching/learning process… the ability to gauge students' understanding, identify and address misconceptions immediately during lecture is definitely priceless, and the ability to direct students to resources that are a click away is amazing.

[I, too, have changed.] When I first started, I was always worried about things like: Will I be able to convey the information effectively to my students? Will I be able to cover everything I had prepared for that day? What if a student asks a question I do not know how to answer? Over the years, my focus drastically shifted toward my students: How can I motivate them? How can I engage them better in the classroom? How can I help them develop and take an active role in their learning?

Calvin Lin

Calvin Lin is a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Computer Science. He has won a College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award in 2003, the Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award in 2011, the President's Associates Teaching Excellence Award in 2016 and was elected to the UT Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 2013.

On his keys to success:

The biggest challenge is trying to keep students engaged. Over the years I've developed a lot of little things that I do. Number one, I think it's important to have fun. I think if you're having fun then there's more chance the students will have fun and there's more chance that they'll actually want to learn things, want to be there and be engaged.

It's really important to take the bigger picture. When I think back to when I first started, we would focus on the content we had to cover, but the larger goals are things we want students to come away with, independent of the content. It's not about me lecturing and having them just slurp it in and have it seep through their eyes, it's how I can get them to think and to ask questions and be willing to be uncomfortable and to take risks.

Also, I really want the students to understand the value of struggling and persevering. If they can learn to persevere, and they can see benefit from that, then they can apply that anywhere in life. My goal is to challenge them and hope that they challenge themselves because that's how they prove themselves and expand the boundaries of what they can do. That means they have to be willing to take risks, know that it's okay to fail and to learn that often, the way you make progress towards a solution is by failing in little ways.

Be constantly asking questions because that's how you find problems. That's how you think of answers and solutions.

On students as sources of inspiration:

One student I had many years ago was really struggling in one of my upper-division classes and around the middle of the semester he started coming into my office hours. He didn't whine about his grade—he was basically failing the class—he was just there to learn. Twice a week, he would come in and we would go through material, and he would ask all of these detailed questions. He worked so hard, and this is that perseverance I'm talking about.

At the end of the year I graded half his final and the TA graded half and I was trying to be very careful that I was being fair and not give him a better grade because I liked him and he had worked so hard…He aced this exam. He got a solid C in the class, which maybe some people wouldn't be excited about, but considering how he was certainly going to fail, it was amazing.

…When I first came [to UT], I focused on teaching a course or giving a lecture, but now I realize we have impact, sometimes unintentionally, in many other ways. One year, I spoke at a summer seminar where students would come and meet various faculty, just to get to know us as people. I don't remember it being a very memorable event. I was afraid that the students were going to be bored.

Then, a couple of years later we had this great student about to graduate. I knew her because she had taken honors courses, and she had transferred in from math. I asked her, "What made you become a computer science major?"

She said, "It was that talk you came and gave at [the summer] seminar. You really made it sound exciting." I don't remember even saying anything about computer science. It's just one example that you can have an impact, even when you don't know it.

Theresa O'Halloran

Theresa O'Halloran is a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Molecular Biosciences. She earned a College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award in 2004, the President's Associates Teaching Excellence Award in 2005, the Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award in 2012 and was elected to the UT Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 2013.

On the joys and challenges of teaching:

I love interacting with students the age of undergraduates, who are generally between 18 and 21, because it's just such a huge period of transformation that I get to see first-hand. I teach freshmen, who've just arrived here, leaving home for the first time, and sophomores, juniors and seniors who are ready to live fully independently.

A challenge is to minimize the straightforward teaching of plain information and get into concepts. [Teaching is figuring] out what to strip out. Students need to learn some facts, but it is the concepts that are more long-lasting. It is challenging to make that bridge, so that students spend time actually interpreting experimental data and exploring concepts and ideas in class.

On philosophies of teaching:

Empathy and putting yourself in the student's place are key to excellent teaching. With the diverse body of students that we have at UT, it's important to be able to put yourself into any student's head and think about what that individual needs to get to the next level. How are you going to encourage students to understand and to practice the concepts and ideas that you're trying to teach?

A big thing that I try to teach is how to interpret experiments. I would like students to be able to design experiments, interpret them, make proper conclusions, do the right controls, but not to over interpret experiments. How can a student practice that in my class? How can I get students to explore different experiments and approaches in one class in a single semester?

On what's changed over the years:

When I started 15 years ago, right from the start I tried to break up class time. I've always included a case study or even a funny movie, just something to break away, and then come back to the lecture. I've evolved even more in that direction, stepping away from lecturing. I personally love a really good lecture, but modern methods of teaching science say that lecturing isn't the best way to learn and isn't the best approach for long-term retention…so now I only lecture for 10 or 15 minutes and then I break up the class into groups that discuss problems.

If you were to step in my class and compare it in 2000 versus now, what you'd experience is a much noisier classroom. As students break into groups to discuss problems, they're arguing about the proper answer, trying to convince each other of the correct answer. I find that really exciting…they're engaged with the material and they're challenging each other. …Professors now are given practical tools, guidelines and advice to [help] implement that active kind of teaching and learning. We see that in the college with the 21st Century Undergraduate Education task force. There's a huge push to transform teaching and to share information about the best practices of teaching and how to implement them.

On drawing inspiration from other teachers:

I had a teacher as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I loved his physiology class. Now that I know more about modern approaches to scientific teaching—which are trying to actively engage students, to step away from lecture and to do problems in class—I'm realizing that he did that and that's why I loved his class.

Every class would break in the middle with a case study or a puzzle or something like that. As students we would just start chatting to the people next to us about these interesting case studies or puzzles, and then we'd come back from the break and discuss that and then move on with the class. It was cool to discover that what he was doing is really what modern educators promote as the best way to promote scientific learning. [I used that concept] when I came here in 1999.

[I'd advise others to] talk to your colleagues. Talk about teaching. Find out what people are doing, and don't feel like you're alone in the classroom trying out new approaches. We all have higher level goals for our students and there are very creative ways to implement those. You can discover new things just by talking to others…and visiting other classrooms.

Read about other amazing educators within the college below.

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Wednesday, 21 April 2021

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