Three UGA faculty members will receive Richard B. Russell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching April 17 at the 2017 Faculty Recognition Banquet at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education Hotel and Conference Center. Russell Awards recognize outstanding teaching by faculty early in their academic careers. Award recipients receive $7,500. The Richard B. Russell Foundation in Atlanta supports the program.
Kelly Dyer, Associate Professor of Genetics, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences
When Kelly Dyer took her first evolutionary biology class in college, she was instantly hooked. While many science classes required a lot of memorization, genetics and evolution sparked her interest, and she realized that she had a penchant for problem solving and independent thinking.
Now, as a genetics researcher, professor and mentor, she has the opportunity to introduce her own students to this field. She strives not only to help her students actively understand and solve problems in the field of genetics, but also help students learn valuable lessons beyond that scope—teaching them written and oral communication, imploring them to take on independent research projects and encouraging them to network and present their research at conferences.
Dyer’s research uses Drosophila flies as a model to understand how organisms adapt to their environment and how one species splits into two. Flies are a system that allows even unexperienced researchers to easily assimilate and learn basic research methods, so it’s not long until students can address their own questions. As a result, since she joined the UGA faculty in 2007, Dyer has mentored nearly 50 undergraduate students, as well as high school students and teachers, conducting research projects in her lab.
“Almost immediately, she encouraged me to develop my own experiences and take charge of my own project,” said former student Erin Giglio. “She helped me to place my experiments in the broader context of the field, but she always encouraged me to be independent and self-reliant, the prime director of my own work. She also created a lab culture that encouraged its members to support each other, allowing new students to benefit from the skill of more experienced students.”
Similarly, her classroom methods encourage students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers, all while developing important communication skills. In an evolutionary genetics class that she redesigned to include writing intensive methods, students completed labs that replicate classic experiments and then build on this by designing their own experiments.
In addition to these methods, Dyer knows that helping students learn through real-world and contemporary concepts is one of the best ways to engage students to want to learn more about a subject. For instance, she has used dogs as an example to help demonstrate key concepts of evolutionary genetics in both introductory and advanced courses.
Key to becoming a good professor, said Dyer, was having good mentors. Her experiences learning from UGA faculty colleagues, including being a Lilly Teaching Fellow, really helped her become the teacher she is today. Interacting with other professors, often from disciplines outside of the sciences, has been a tremendous source of ideas and inspiration. The culture among faculty encourages a strong mentoring environment.
“Faculty members take mentoring seriously,” she said. “We are here for each other, and we are here for our students.”
Sonia Hernandez, Associate Professor, Joint appointment in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study
Whether fluttering across her classroom imitating the long-tailed manakin’s courtship rituals or leading students across the steamy hills of Costa Rican rainforests on nocturnal hikes, Sonia Hernandez leads by doing.
She feels most effective as an educator in the field. It is harder work than traditional classroom teaching—from the long hours and the logistics of international travel to the organized chaos of real-world research—but worth every minute, she said.
In addition to multiple ecology and wildlife disease courses, she also teaches Conservation Medicine and Biology every year in Costa Rica, the only abroad field-based class of its kind in the nation offered to undergraduate students.
Her team wakes up at 6 a.m., works hands-on projects all day and falls asleep exhausted and dirty, but very happy.
Hernandez posits her teaching style from the position of the student. Teaching applied ecological sciences requires attention to detail and a tender patience, she said, but also provides a critical opportunity to inspire student ownership and future wildlife and veterinary leaders. Her teaching philosophy boils down to a dynamic recipe: promote multidisciplinary education that fosters in-the-field experiential learning, add commitment to lifelong mentorship and pledge to support diversity in wildlife conservation and veterinary fields.
Students say her enthusiasm for conservation is contagious and inspires a commitment to wildlife ecology. Her colleagues are awe-inspired by her ability to dovetail wildlife disease research and exotic animal medicine, and infuse the technical curriculum with passion and hands-on teaching.
“Sometimes elite research scientists prefer to exclusively conduct research and have neither the time nor aptitude for relating their academic training and exciting research to students, especially undergraduates,” said Susan Wilde, an associate professor in Warnell.
Hernandez’s willingness and enthusiasm for teaching are fostered by her commitment to continuing her own education, Wilde said. Hernandez not only encourages students to get out of the classroom and challenge themselves, but she also continues to challenge herself by taking advantage of UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning, which offers opportunities to enhance teaching effectiveness.
“Sonia opened the door for me to wildlife diseases, ecology, ornithology, perils of working in the field, the glamour of data entry and analysis, molecular biology, and the cultural awakening of living with a family in rural Costa Rica,” said former student Dr. Rajesh Joshi, who was conferred a DVM from UGA in 2012. “It changed my way of thinking … That is the power of a great teacher.”
John Mativo, Associate Professor of Workforce Education, College of Education
With students in both the College of Education and the College of Engineering, John Mativo’s influence and enthusiasm for teaching extend across the STEM fields and into the community where students are benefiting from their work on real-world industry projects.
“My teaching philosophy is simple: Inspire students to dig deeper in what they are learning,” said Mativo, who joined UGA’s faculty in 2007. “In presenting real-life examples, students can bridge the unknown to the known.”
Hired to help develop a new engineering design program in education, Mativo teaches graduate-level courses in Global Innovation, Technology and Careers; Evaluation of Workforce Programs; and Action
Research in the College of Education in addition to Dynamics, Computational Engineering Methods, and Logic Design in the College of Engineering. Additionally, he instructs undergraduate students in two First-Year Odyssey courses, Alternative Energy and Sustainability as well as Product Design and Innovation.
“Dr. Mativo’s achievements in his teaching, research and service attest to his ability to fulfill the land-grant university mission,” said Rob Branch, a professor of learning, design and technology and head of the career and information studies department. “Several students have recognized him as a mentor and indicated him as a prime reason for the successful completion of their respective academic degree programs.”
Many of Mativo’s courses contain a service component for students to actively engage in the community. As a result, students are not only immersed in experiential learning, but they also experience the benefits of service and outreach.
In 2011, his dedication to this approach inspired his students to design, install and commission a wireless computer network for the Athens Nurses Clinic, a facility that provides free health care to homeless and low-income residents in Athens, so medical practitioners could share information about their patients more rapidly and efficiently.
The course materials, along with the students’ enthusiasm and knowledge, helped guide the development of the network design. After just two months, the project was approved by the clinic, and the team officially established the wireless network.
Mativo’s goals as an educator and a researcher are twofold: To enhance the way students engage in learning today and to advance energy harvesting systems that can withstand vibratory environments.
He has played a significant role in developing an integrative STEM curriculum using robotics to teach science within existing middle school curricula.
“Students come to us with different backgrounds, and we have to figure out what they know and what they don’t and work from that point toward meeting the learning objectives of the course so students can perform exceedingly well,” said Mativo. “By exercising respect to one another, we can attain great achievements.”