Campus News

Richard B. Russell Award

Three UGA faculty members received Richard B. Russell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the 2011 Faculty Recognition Banquet at the Georgia Center on April 11. Russell Awards recognize outstanding teaching by faculty in their first decade

Associate Professor of Chemistry

When you walk into a large lecture course taught by Wesley Allen, you may notice something odd: Nearly all of the 250-plus students show up.

Why? The draw is two-fold: Allen’s lectures are full of energy and delivered with the aid of cutting-edge classroom technology such as videos, clicker quizzes and handmade models and demonstrations.

“Arriving late to his class, it is often difficult to find a seat,” said former student John Gaudet. “He makes it nearly impossible for students to disengage themselves.”

Since 2005, Allen has taught seven introductory large lecture hall chemistry courses to more than 1,900 students-and he’s offered, legitimately, to get to know every one of them. He’s fond of telling students they are “more than 810 numbers.”

And his actions back up that claim.

Allen keeps liberal office hours and encourages students to stop by to talk about chemistry, life in general, and/or help build molecular models. Every Monday night, he hosts a voluntary two-hour help session, and whenever he meets a student, he jots down the student’s name on an index card so he can remember it later in class.

But the emphasis on Allen as a pedagogical pioneer and nurturing professor shouldn’t obscure the view of Allen as a full-fledged chemistry enthusiast. He’s an internationally recognized theoretical chemist with more than 100 high-quality research publications, which have accrued more than 4,300 citations in the scientific literature.

Yet what’s truly distinctive about Allen is the passion he brings to both the teaching and research sides of his job.

“He showed me the power of chemistry, but was able to put it in perspective of something I could understand. I remember him saying so often ‘Think like a molecule!’ And this is how he presented all of his material and made the microscopic, unimaginable visible right in front of our eyes,” said former student Garret Strawn. “Now I’m actually excited about organic chemistry next year. Too bad he isn’t teaching it.”

John Maerz
Associate Professor of Wildlife

John Maerz’s classes are a bit unorthodox by design. Though he uses some traditional teaching methods, it’s common for students to show up and play games, find a snake loose in the lecture hall or even be asked to take the lead on teaching material. Behind Maerz’s approach is a philosophy rooted in the value of student-centered learning as a means to engage students and foster an awareness of their learning styles. He uses a variety of techniques to keep courses from getting monotonous and works hard to make sure students know how much he enjoys being in the classroom with them. Outside the classroom, he mentors undergraduates in research. He does this, he said, because he had the same opportunities when he was an undergraduate.

“Our obligation is to help students find the place where their passions and skills collide and to stimulate them to go farther once they find that place,” he said. “I am where I am today because I was afforded numerous research experiences as an undergraduate. To not provide research opportunities for students would be to ignore the value it had in my own career.”

Maerz also has applied his passion for teaching to the training of future faculty. He developed a course that trains doctoral students about the philosophy and mechanics of university instruction.

His efforts have not gone unnoticed among his colleagues.

“John is one of those rare science faculty members for whom teaching and research excellence are indistinguishable,” said James Porter, associate dean for academic affairs in the Odum School of Ecology. “Being both an excellent teacher and researcher requires you to run at several speeds, and on several paths, at the same time, keeping pace with your own academic discipline, but simultaneously helping young practitioners to choose their own life course and run fast on it. John knows that the only way to accomplish this is through inspiration, and he does this better than other science teacher I know. John lives the key element of good teaching: when he steps into the classroom, he knows that it’s about his student’s dreams, not his.”

Kaye Sweetser
Associate Professor of Public Relations

Say the word “research” to a group of undergraduate students and chances are high that, just like a deflating balloon, you can feel the energy being sucked from the room.

The intimidation factor that often accompanies the research process is something that Kaye Sweetser faces head on in her classes in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She helps students conquer their “research-itis” with an unorthodox approach and commitment that has drawn rave evaluations from students in her public relations research course.

Since joining UGA’s faculty in 2006, Sweetser has become somewhat notorious for her high expectations, but students agree that she works as hard for them as she expects them to work for her. Extremely accessible, she invites student research teams to her home to analyze their data in a relaxed, small-group learning environment.

“Although she teaches the same concepts in the classroom, it’s over her kitchen island surrounded by survey data and pizza that the information really sticks,” said Tom Reichert, head of Grady’s department of advertising and public relations. “By the end of the evening, the students are talking about correlations, ANOVAS and p values with the confidence and excitement of junior scholars.”

In addition to public relations research methods, Sweetser also teaches popular courses in social media and public relations campaigns-all while also serving as a commissioned public affairs officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, an obligation that she feels makes her a better teacher. Last month, she was mobilized to Afghanistan and is on military leave from UGA. Students fondly recall how she continued teaching and mentoring them from afar while on a short-term Pentagon assignment.

“She was available via videoconferencing, instant message and email when she was unable to meet on campus,” said Caitlin Peterson, a 2010 alumna. “She also made YouTube videos to walk us through difficult assignments. While this level of attention may be unusual elsewhere on campus, it is the standard for a Sweetser class.”