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Nothing’s bugging ASU’s Stout

July 07, 2008

Professor’s enthusiasm earns distinguished teaching award

If you drop into a microbiology class for majors at ASU, you might see associate professor Valerie Stout waving a pool noodle – or stumbling, arms trailing behind, palms up, in an interpretative dance version of the “runs” and “tumbles” used by bacteria to locate food sources. It’s a movement she’s coined the “Chemotaxis Dance.”

At times perplexing and insightful, inspiring questions and humor, Stout’s innovative arsenal of active learning practices and love of teaching earned her the 2007 Distinguished Teaching Award from ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I strive to pass on my enthusiasm and passion for science and learning and instill a love of the scientific process to students,” Stout says.

She also wants her students in microbiology and molecular biology to graduate from ASU with “the necessary backgrounds to make them both competitive and flexible in our rapidly changing field and intellectually proficient in an increasingly technological society.”

This has meant that her students have to develop a solid grounding in facts – and, perhaps more importantly, that they acquire the ability to think critically and creatively and adapt to new situations and technologies.

“I want students to be able to read anything in the popular press and be able to critique it and be able to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t make sense,’ ” she says.

Stout’s approaches, however, make a lot of sense. She is one of two faculty members at ASU selected by the National Academies to attend the Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology, which took place June 22-27.

The institute brought together 22 pairs of committed educators – one senior, one junior – to train together. Stout’s partner teacher is Shelley Haydel, an assistant professor in School of Life Sciences and a researcher in the Biodesign Institute at ASU. Haydel teaches two undergraduate courses – “Medical Bacteriology” and “Pathogenic Microbes” – and studies tuberculosis and the antibacterial effects of clay minerals.

Like Stout, teaching is a focus for Haydel.

“I try to create an environment that instills a desire within students to learn, respectfully ascertain the learning capabilities of each student and promote collaborative and holistic learning experiences,” Haydel says. “Attending the summer institute will help me identify and develop new strategies to improve undergraduate educational experiences and bring these new tools back to share with other instructors at ASU.”

Stout and Haydel expect to return with new ways to incorporate scientific teaching principles of active learning and assessment into their classrooms and attract more diverse students into research. In addition, the institute focuses on developing mentoring skills to pass along to postdoctoral fellows and teaching assistants, and to enrich graduate curriculum in teaching.

The National Academies Summer Institute harbored one surprise around mentoring for Stout. Her former undergraduate student, ASU alumna Clarissa Dirks, now an assistant professor of biology at Evergreen State College and herself a 2004 Summer Institute participant, assisted her and Haydel’s instruction.

“Mentoring and caring are the keys to everything, not just science,” Stout says. “And one of the most gratifying things about teaching or mentoring is when your student goes on to exceed you.”

The National Academies Summer Institute was organized by the National Research Council of the National Academies in partnership with the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It’s supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Research Corporation, the President’s Committee on the National Research Council and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.