2016 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: Michael Crimmins, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Michael Crimmins has made exceptional contributions to teaching throughout his 34-year career at UNC-Chapel Hill, and his current activities in chemistry and around campus are overwhelming in their breadth and impact. He is a beloved instructor in both large and small class settings, as well as in both graduate and undergraduate courses – especially impressive since he teaches the more typically dreaded organic chemistry course.
Crimmins utilizes numerous multimedia innovations and new educational methods in the classroom, and his passion for chemical content and his inspirational teaching methods have motivated students to achieve mastery levels beyond their wildest expectations. He consistently scores enviable marks in student reviews while maintaining commendable standards of excellence. Furthermore, he has provided exceptional leadership in the implementation of innovative educational methods for the entire College of Arts and Sciences. Throughout his career Crimmins has excelled as a graduate mentor and classroom instructor, but recently has made extraordinary strides in educational innovation.
Students attest to the learning environment created by Crimmins, especially for courses that cause most students fear and anxiety: “This previously intimidating course made me shake in my boots but I would retake this class with this teacher 100 times over” and “I have really enjoyed this class and am very glad that my fear of taking organic chemistry turned into a positive, successful experience”. Another student notes: “Dr. Crimmins has cultivated an environment that is extremely conducive to learning and is the most knowledgeable and caring professor. He is an expert at chemistry, but also at teaching.” His impact is inspirational with quotes such as “I wish that Dr. Crimmins taught every single class at UNC; if he did, I would probably become a chemistry professor.”
During peer observations, one can see his passion for teaching and the students. He chats with students before class and even sat on the steps besides students groups as he helped walk them through the problems posed during class. He makes student think by showing them the process and using the process in a variety of formats. Students were engaged -- no laptops present and a stream of “clicker” questions. A room of 200-plus students was full of noise talking about organic chemistry.
Crimmins earned his BA with honors from Hendrix College in 1976, and his PhD from Duke University in 1980.
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. It is a great honor to be recognized with the BOG Excellence in Teaching Award and it is extremely rewarding to have my efforts to improve teaching of undergraduate science courses validated by this award. This award is particularly satisfying because it rewards outstanding teaching over an extended period of time.
Q. What was your path into teaching?
A. Careers are often defined by major events and milestones that are highly influential to an individual. For me it was a long series of small events and opportunities that eventually led me to a career in academia. I went from my undergraduate degree to graduate school to a postdoctoral appointment in a fairly seamless way. During my postdoctoral studies I made the decision to embark, at least initially on an academic career because it provide me with the opportunity to conduct my own research and to explore whether teaching was something I enjoyed. I landed a position at UNC-Chapel Hill and have been there my entire career.
Q. Besides this award, is there one particular achievement in your career that makes you especially proud?
A. Besides this award, the accomplishment that I am most proud of is the mentoring of more than 50 graduate students to the completion of their PhD degrees. Watching and helping a student develop into an independent scientist is a a very rewarding process and I have been fortunate to have some extremely talented students to work with during my career. I am very proud of all their scientific accomplishments and successful careers.
Q. What teaching methods do you use to engage students?
A. I utilize high structure active learning techniques in the classroom to engage my students. They are required to come to class with some understanding of the material, which allows us to do much more sophisticated problem solving in the class rather than just fairly simple information transfer. I have found that students respond very well to these techniques and engage each other through peer instruction as they discuss and solve the problems together in class. Having students engage the material before class, during class and then after class with additional problem solving helps them break down and connect difficult concepts ultimately making the material more tractable for them.