She was named the Washington state winner of the U.S. Professors of the Year Award
Vicky Minderhout, a professor of chemistry, has been teaching at Seattle University for the past 31 years. Although her research training is in clinical chemistry, it was during her postdoctoral work that her interests turned to teaching. Late last year, Minderhout was named the 2011 Washington state winner of the U.S. Professors of the Year award, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Minderhout was one of 27 state-level winners; four others were named national-level winners. We asked Minderhout to elaborate on her teaching strategy and to what she hopes the award will draw attention.
Q. What piqued your interest in teaching?
A. I taught part time one year during my postdoc and had so much fun working with students that I seriously began wondering about the career path I had chosen, which was clinical chemistry, not teaching.
Q. Was this an opportunity you actively looked for or were you volunteered to teach? And whom did you teach?
A. I was recruited from my postdoctoral program in clinical chemistry at the University of Washington to teach clinical chemistry to undergraduates. Seattle University was unusual for offering a bachelor’s degree in clinical chemistry.
Q. How is your strategy for teaching — for getting through to your students — different from that of your peers?
A. My classroom strategy utilizes (what is known as) active learning and involves students working in small groups answering instructor-designed questions — as opposed to lecture. My chemistry colleagues at Seattle University use active learning in the classroom to varying extents; however, nationally, the use of active-learning strategies is not as prevalent. This approach engages students by actively involving them in the learning process. They feel challenged, but most eventually take pride in their development personally and intellectually.
Q. Does active learning essentially follow the Socratic method, involving dialogue and challenge?
A. Yes, that’s correct. And in large classes, the dialogue and challenge can be between the students themselves; it does not always require the instructor to lead the challenge. In fact, it is probably best if students take on this role, although the instructor may assign a specific student to be the skeptic.
Q. When did you begin teaching in this different way?
A. After my first sabbatical in 1993, I redesigned one upper-division course to focus on the primary literature and became very interested in teaching problem solving and critical thinking in more direct ways than I had done previously. I attended an active-learning workshop in 1997 that focused on process education. This workshop helped me translate my ideas about what I wanted my teaching to accomplish for my students into real classroom practices that I could implement. Since the workshop modeled classroom practices while delivering content about learning, I actually was able both to learn new material and watch it being implemented in ways I could adapt to my classroom.