2016 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner: Sally Wasileski, University of North Carolina at Asheville
Sally Wasileski, associate professor of chemistry, describes teaching as her "career, hobby, and passion" and evidence of this deep commitment to student learning is abundantly clear. During her 11 years in the Department of Chemistry at UNC Asheville, Wasileski has proved herself as a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher who thoughtfully organizes her courses and out-of-class activities to maximize student learning.
In the classroom, Wasileski offers students a dynamic pedagogy, a commitment to civic engagement, and a contagious enthusiasm for chemistry. She is committed to the learning of all students, whether they be chemistry majors or non-science majors. One of Wasileski's signature courses is Food of Chemistry, in which students learn the essential chemistry curriculum through an innovative approach that utilizes food and cooking in all course demonstrations and labs. Students conduct experiments with real world consequences such as measuring the sodium content of foods served on campus, thus learning chemistry in a way that is exceptionally more accessible than a traditional lab setting. One of Wasileski's students from this class commented that she "has a gift when it comes to explaining complex ideas so everyone can understand" while another noted that she "creates a fun learning environment" and "makes me eager to learn."
Wasileski's commitment to student learning also extends to students outside of chemistry through her work on curricular developments that enhance the interdisciplinary liberal arts mission at UNC Asheville. As founding member of a faculty collective teaching students about food from several disciplinary perspectives, she spearheaded efforts to craft projects where students from multiple courses learn together and teach each other the content of their respective courses. Each year, dozens of students who have never stepped foot in a chemistry classroom thus learn chemistry due to Wasileski's commitment to making science accessible for everyone.
Wasileski's students also benefit from her commitment to undergraduate research. The rigorous research opportunities she provides her students include community-based projects that stretch the impact of her teaching into the larger Asheville community.
Wasileski directs the Chemistry Scholars program, a National Science Foundation-funded program that provides scholarships for students interested in chemistry. Wasileski is the primary investigator on this project, which has yielded a more than 170 percent increase in the number of chemistry majors since its inception in 2011.
Wasileski mentors high school students and regularly conducts chemistry demonstrations to school and community groups, thus amplifying the impact of her teaching to those in the broader Asheville area.
Wasileski has previously been recognized as winner of the UNC Asheville's Award for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences and as a Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities Leadership Fellow. With several colleagues, she was awarded the William E. Bennett Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Citizen Science for her work integrating STEM and non-STEM courses.
Wasileski earned a PhD in chemistry from Purdue University and a BS with honors in chemistry from Juniata College.
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. Being selected for the BOG Award for Excellence in teaching has been a tremendous honor. It is even more special to be selected by my faculty peers because I am surrounded by truly superb teachers at UNC Asheville. I have learned so much from my colleagues, who are always willing to help one another be better teachers.
Q. What was your path into teaching?
A. Since childhood I wanted to be a teacher, but I never understood how until I was a student at Juniata College, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Living and learning in an undergraduate liberal arts environment, learning how to think and solve problems, both in my major chemistry but also in many other ways and disciplines, and engaging in chemistry research under my mentor, Dr. Tom Fisher, was an experience that transformed me as a person and as a scientist. I knew then that I wanted to be that mentor, and help others grow to be scientists in this manner. And at UNC Asheville, UNC’s public liberal arts institution, with our long history and strong commitment to undergraduate research, I get to work closely with students every day as they grow into scientists. It is amazing.
Q. Besides this award, is there one particular achievement in your career that makes you especially proud?
A. The most important work of my career has been creating the Chemistry Scholars Program at UNC Asheville, because of the tremendous impact it has had on our students, faculty and university. This program began in 2011 and provides scholarships for academically-talented students with financial need to be chemistry majors at UNC Asheville and is funded through $1.2 million in grants from the National Science Foundation and another $300,000 from UNC Asheville. More than just scholarships, we created a student-support structure for all chemistry majors, which includes creating a learning community of chemistry majors, mentoring programs, research fellowships, seminars and field trips. Implementation has been a team effort of chemistry faculty and we have seen many successes – most notably a near doubling of chemistry graduates, an increase well above the number of scholarships. The Chemistry Scholars Program has strengthened the community in our department – which we describe as family – and highlights the importance of our work as teachers outside the classroom. I am awed watching our chemistry students, many of which are the first in their family to go to college, grow into scientists. And they are not just prepared, they are securing jobs in chemical industry and admissions to top graduate, medical and pharmacy schools after graduation. I’m a proud mother!
Q. What teaching methods do you use to engage students?
A. I teach courses in chemical analysis and instrumentation, introductory chemistry, and for non-science majors to develop science literacy. All involve active learning, but I use a variety of methods depending on the class. For General Chemistry, I use a flipped approach so that in-class time is helping students solve problems. In Food of Chemistry, chemical principles are tied to food and cooking, bringing chemistry into students’ everyday lives. We have cooking labs, demonstrations, and projects with non-chemistry classes to link science to other areas. In laboratory courses, my students learn analytical chemistry by doing analytical chemistry through research projects. And one-on-one mentored research is my best teaching, as students and I work together to understand the catalytic reaction mechanisms for producing alternative fuels. Teaching through research is a big part of how our students not just learn chemistry, but become chemists at UNC Asheville.