Western Carolina University
2016 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: Carmen Huffman, Western Carolina University
Carmen Huffman, Western Carolina University’s 2016 winner of the Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Award, is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. Since joining the faculty in 2005, Huffman has taught chemistry, specifically physical chemistry classes. Huffman has received numerous grants during her time at Western Carolina. Her focus has been on grants that enhance the undergraduate research experience.
Huffman’s teaching philosophy seeks to prepare students by emphasizing germane skills that cross disciplinary boundaries. In addition to teaching fundamental chemistry concepts, Huffman’s teaching goals include the following: developing independent thinkers with creative problem‐solving skills and cultivating future professionals with transferable skills. She defines these skills as important abilities that transcend chemistry and equip students for the professional world. At Western Carolina, Huffman has transformed her instruction by incorporating inquiry‐based methods to create engaging and interactive learning environments. End‐of‐semester student comments often mention how Huffman has allowed them to work with and apply content in new, engaging ways. Her classes use process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) as a way for groups to investigate challenging real world questions. In end‐of-semester evaluations students rave about the POGIL activities calling them challenging yet rewarding. One peer observer revealed how “Dr. Huffman discovered this approach by turning the practice on herself, i.e. through a process of guided inquiry about what was working … in her classroom. The resulting approach is fairly radical … [h]er students do not just learn physical chemistry, or just science, but rather she teaches them how to be curious about what they are learning, to ask good questions, and to have their own courage to seek answers for themselves.”
According to her department colleagues, Huffman takes some of the most difficult courses and teaches them exceptionally well semester after semester. Students rave about how well she teaches a difficult course and embrace the stimulating but rewarding activities in her classes. A former student calls her the most challenging and the most inspiring teacher she has had. Colleagues note that she “has found an ideal balance between encouraging and challenging her students and demonstrating genuine care for them.” Another colleague explained Huffman’s classroom philosophy as “want[ing] the student to go on their own voyage of discovery.” Huffman has also participated in campus‐wide efforts to implement inquiry‐based methods in classroom instruction. In this way she has become a catalyst for change impacting her students, chemistry students and all students at Western Carolina.
Other recognition for Huffman’s exemplary work includes the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award (2012) and a commendation as a previous finalist for the Board of Governors Award. Huffman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry from the University of Rhode Island and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Maryland.
Q. The Teaching Awards were established in 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to encourage, identify, recognize, reward, and support good teaching within the University. What does this award mean to you?
A. Of course, it is truly an honor. Western Carolina University places a large emphasis on quality teaching, and there are many exceptional teachers at our institution, so being among the top instructors is very meaningful. I am passionate about teaching, and I put a lot of thought and energy into it, so this recognition is very rewarding.
Q. What was your path into teaching?
A. I always knew that I wanted to teach. I had a knack for helping my peers with chemistry courses when I was in college. I had considered teaching high school, but I really wanted a graduate degree to satisfy my own curiosity about chemistry. After digging deeper, I realized teaching at the college level was the best way to achieve my life-long learning goals. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Teaching is my absolute favorite part of my job, and I love that I get to teach my favorite subject to students learning about the subject for the first time as well as graduate students who are digging deeper, just as I once did and continue to do.
Q. Besides this award, is there one particular achievement in your career that makes you especially proud?
A. I recently became the director of our chemistry graduate program. This position is very satisfying because I am able to connect with our graduate students on both an academic and a personal level as I guide them through our program. Students have said they appreciate my devotion to their progress, and knowing that I make an impact on their journey makes me very proud.
Q. What teaching methods do you use to engage students?
A. I use process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL) to teach my chemistry courses. This approach has students work in teams in a problem-based approach to understanding chemistry concepts. Not only do they gain a deeper understanding of the material, but they also learn important communication and teamwork skills that they can use for the rest of their lives in both an academic setting as well as the workplace. However, in chemistry, as in most disciplines, practicing scholarship activities is the really the best way to learn. Hands-on research in the lab is where students encounter the ultimate problem-based learning environment with an authentic project that takes them through the scientific method from beginning to end. These opportunities give students the best experience in what it’s like to be a chemist.