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Eleven Faculty Members Honored with Teaching Excellence Awards

Eleven Faculty Members Honored with Teaching Excellence Awards

The Teaching Excellence Award in the College of Natural Sciences seeks to promote and recognize excellent teaching in the College of Natural Sciences by honoring faculty members who have had a positive influence on the educational experience of our students. Read on to meet this year's winners.

Katie Bruner, assistant professor of instruction, Biology Instruction Office

Bruner usually teaches laboratory units in genetics. She is known for getting to know her students and going out of her way to help them succeed.

"From the start, Dr. Bruner has been energetic and optimistic – she is obviously joyful about teaching," said one of her nominators. "In addition, Dr. Bruner is improving the lab manual each semester. She's getting rid of labs that use old technology and that have subject matter that is not obviously relevant to the students' lives."

In a recent project, she bought fish from a local grocery store and students analyzed genetic samples from each. They learned about the evolutionary and genetic connection between different species, but they also learned that many fish were improperly labeled in the market. 

Caitlin Casey, assistant professor, Department of Astronomy

Casey is known as an engaging teacher who is passionate about her subject and has a great sense of humor.

"Professor Casey represents the best of what we can hope for in teachers. She is highly effective, cares about her students, continuously modifies her courses to keep them cutting-edge and focuses on student knowledge retention," said one of her nominators.

She is also heavily involved in diversity, equity and inclusion programs for her department. She initiated and leads a program designed to retain undergraduate students of color in STEM and also initiated the department's Equity and Inclusion discussion group. 

Glenn Downing, assistant professor of instruction, Department of Computer Science

Downing is known for his extensive knowledge of programing languages and his ability to answer questions and correct misunderstandings of the material. His group projects are notoriously challenging.

"Professor Downing's classes are tailored towards upper division CS students who will likely enter the workforce soon after taking his classes," said one of his nominators. "He makes the class projects such that it reflects the workflow process you'd encounter in a job after graduating."

His previous awards include the College of Natural Sciences Golden Apple Teaching Excellence Award, College of Natural Sciences Foundation Advisory Council Award, and the College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award in 2002. He is a faculty advisor of the UT Programming Contest.

Vernita Gordon, associate professor, Department of Physics

Earlier this year Gordon was recognized with a 2020 President's Associates Teaching Excellence Award. She teaches a wide range of physics classes and is known for engaging demonstrations, as well as using her class time to have students solve problems using what they have learned. Physics associate professor Vernita Gordon teaches a range of physics courses.

Gordon is known as a researcher in biological physics as an expert on biofilms, dangerous colonies of bacteria that band together and can threaten human health, and she won the Robert S. Hyer Research Award in 2013.In addition to her work with undergraduates, Gordon and her lab members developed a lesson plan that was taught to middle school students at the 2019 summer UTeach STEM Prep camp.

Elizabeth Ilardi, assistant professor of practice, TIDES

Ilardi teaches general chemistry and organic chemistry labs, as well as seminars for the Freshman Research Initiative on science communication and student ambassadorship.

"Elizabeth's course is so well organized and enjoyed by the students that each year 400 request it and she can only take 35," said one of her nominators. "Her students learn excellent lab techniques and research skills that they utilize in other faculty labs as well as in higher education and the job market."

Ilardi is known for constantly improving her teaching strategies and updating her material, so that the course is different nearly every semester. She also participates in the High School Research Initiative, where she partners with a local high school teacher to teach students about research. 

Laura Lashinger, associate professor of instruction, Nutritional Sciences

A former nurse, Lashinger brings an intense curiosity about the intersection of nutrition and cancer to her work and hopes to satisfy that curiosity in her students. Among her students, she is known for being very accessible and offering guidance. Her previous award include having won Texas 10 recognition, which is given by alumni of The University of Texas at Austin.

In talking to The Alcalde about her approach to working with students, Lashinger focused on the collaboration between faculty and students, in and out of the labs. Students cite her ability to make biochemistry understandable and science a subject to fall in love with as some of the reasons they most enjoy having her for a teacher.

Dennis Mishler, assistant professor of practice, TIDES

As a Freshman Research Initiative research educator in Microbe Hackers stream, Mishler shows students how to use synthetic biology and genetically engineer bacteria to answer real-world questions, such as how much caffeine is in different kinds of coffee and whether cyano-bacteria could be used to mitigate climate change. Mishler's lab is known for being challenging, but students say they learn a lot.

"Given the different backgrounds and educational needs of the students within his course, Dr. Mishler prioritizes a student learning community, participation, and student self-improvement over absolute knowledge or expertise," said one of his nominators. "Dr. Mishler is constantly pushing to innovate within his courses and to improve his own teaching, and he teaches multiple courses related to research and experiential learning."

Stacy Sparks, professor of instruction, Department of Chemistry

Among her students, Sparks is known for easy-to-follow lectures and an openness to questions. For several years, she has taught large sections of general chemistry classes and has led the charge to expand active learning in larger sections. She has taken on training undergraduate assistants for these large classes in order to ensure that more students are successful in the courses.

"While many faculty use undergraduates to assist in the classroom, Stacy is one of the leaders in recognizing that great undergraduate assistants don't just happen—the quality of peer-assisted learning greatly improves by offering a structured environment to master content while learning pedagogical techniques for teaching STEM to a diverse student population," according to a nomination letter

David Taylor, assistant professor, Department of Molecular Biosciences

Taylor is known among his students for his easy-to-understand lectures and how much he cares about the success of each student.

"His reliance on group problem-solving, digesting primary literature and presentations sets all of (his students) up for success," one of the nomination letters for him read. "It also challenges the students to learn how to think rather than what to memorize."

Taylor's research is focused on using cryo-electron microscopy to understand the molecules involved in gene regulation and DNA repair. His work has applications for cancer research. He is a CPRIT Scholar, an Army Young Investigator and the co-director of the Sauer Structural Biology Laboratory.

Etienne Vouga, assistant professor, Department of Computer Science

Vouga's students say he is known for clear and engaging lectures and challenging projects. "Etienne has high standards in all of his activities—for his teaching, his research and for the knowledge he expects his students to attain," said one of his nominators. "He consistently helps his students reach the high bar he sets, and they love him for it."

Vouga is a member of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences (ICES). His research interests are in computer graphics and include physical simulation of thin, elastic materials like cloth, hair and paper and applying ideas from these areas to solving problems in computer graphics, computational mechanics, and scientific computing. Industry applications of his research include special effects simulations in movies such as The Hobbit and Tangled.

Lauren J. Webb, associate professor, Department of Chemistry

Among her students, Lauren Webb is known as a talented teacher with a passion for chemistry. They say she makes complex concepts easy to understand. This is her second CNS Teaching Excellence Award. After winning her first in 2009, she said: "What I've tried to do as a teacher is find ways to make it clear to my students that this is relevant science. When I was learning a lot of this material as an undergraduate, it wasn't really clear to me why I needed to know it."

Webb makes a practice of being accessible to her students, answering their questions promptly and breaking down why chemistry is key for understanding "extremely complex systems—proteins, DNA, entire cells, entire populations—that are too complex to really grasp at a molecular or atomistic scale."

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Sunday, 11 April 2021

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