WOOSTER, Ohio – Stephanie Strand, associate professor of biology at The College of Wooster, was selected as the 2019 Ohio Project Kaleidoscope STEM Educator of the Year, an award honoring her excellent and innovative teaching practices among other attributes, as announced at the fifth annual Ohio-PKAL Conference on May 18.
Ohio-PKAL is a regional network of an American Association of Colleges & Universities (AACU) initiative by the same name. PKAL, founded in 1989, is an organization focused on transforming undergraduate STEM teaching and learning by “empowering an extensive network of faculty and administrators committed to the principles, practices, and partnerships that advance cutting-edge, integrative STEM higher education for all students,” according to the AACU website.
Strand was “shocked” to receive the honor because she “doesn’t think what (she does) is extraordinary” and simply wants to provide “students the very best experience possible.” That guiding principle has led to a constantly evolving teaching style, instead of the familiar patterns some faculty revert to, in hopes of reaching her vision of students “being invested in their education and taking ownership of what they’re learning.”
Strand’s innovative pedagogy practices include “building community among the students” and “giving students a lot of choice in what they’re doing in class.” Her classes frequently include small group work (rather than lengthy lectures), which creates a level of comfort and support for all students and ultimately leads to engaging peer discussions and what she calls “active learning.” She also helps facilitate learning by offering students’ options whether in assignments, reading topics, or even tests in an attempt “to tap into their personal interest about a subject.”
“Often during assignments, they have a choice of things to read or questions to answer, where I tell them to go out and do a little research on something that interests them from the article. I’m starting to teach in a module format, so I give students a list of different topics that we could potentially cover in class. And on exams, I’ve always built in an opportunity for students to have a choice in the kind of questions they answer, thinking that everybody has interests and strengths in what they learn. I really want students to showcase what they’ve learned,” Strand further explained.
As a passionate advocate for best practices in teaching, Strand intentionally shares her ideas not only within her department, but across campus. She co-leads a weekly faculty discussion group, in which they seek out ways “to help students feel more included and to grasp the information and make it relevant in their lives.”
Strand also does a lot within the local community, serving as a mentor at Expanding Your Horizons and B-WISER Institute, a pair of summer conferences promoting the interest of science to middle-school girls, and helping organize the Wooster Science Café, an annual series of lectures about scientific topics of interest to the general public.
Strand, whose own research interests as a microbiologist focuses on how microorganisms interact with the host organism that they might be on or in, doesn’t think this award would have been possible without Wooster’s passionate, thoughtful students. “I think it’s my students that made me a better teacher. Watching and listening to what they say and making changes every year, and trying something new, then watching and listening again, and making modifications. I really am the teacher I am because of them,” she said.