Award finalist talks impact, creative teaching strategies

Heather MacDonald is presented an Award as one of three Robert Frost Cherry Award finalists on Monday at the BSB before presenting a lecture on effective learning using the geosciences. Ambika Kashi Singh | Lariat Photographer
Heather MacDonald is presented an Award as one of three Robert Frost Cherry Award finalists on Monday at the BSB before presenting a lecture on effective learning using the geosciences.
Ambika Kashi Singh | Lariat Photographer

By Jade Mardirosian
Staff Writer

The second of three finalists for the Robert Foster Cherry Award, which honors outstanding professors, presented a lecture Monday explaining issues involved with teaching and creating strong departments and communities outside the classroom.

Dr. Heather Macdonald, chancellor professor of geology at the College of William and Mary, presented “Behind the Scenes: From Strong Geoscience Courses to an Energized Community.”

Macdonald touched on various points that impact classroom instruction and students’ success, including the issues that come with teaching and learning, faculty development, educational research and communities.

Before Macdonald began her lecture, Dr. Michael Thompson, chair of the Robert Foster Cherry Award Committee, spoke about the award and then presented Macdonald with a $15,000 check and plaque, which each finalist receives.

“[The award] was established to honor great teaching, and I think that goes well with the mission of Baylor University,” Thompson said. “There has been significant growth in the award this year, [with] over 100 nominations, mostly from the United States with a few international applications.”

Macdonald began her lecture with an overview of what geoscience entails, and then broke down how faculty and teachers design courses and present material in the classroom in ways they think will be most beneficial to students.

“We [as teachers] want to make sure students learn what we are trying to teach them,” Macdonald said. “The decision I made when I started teaching was to decide on the order of the chapters and topics to be covered. Now I think there is a different way to approach teaching. The question is: How will students be changed, be different, by the end of the course?”

Macdonald said when teachers are designing a course, they should pay attention to both the cognitive part of the brain, which includes synthesizing and solving problems, and the affective part of the brain, which encompasses things such as motivation, attitudes and confidence.

“These kinds of affective factors can either promote learning or inhibit it,” Macdonald said. “As we learn more about this, I think we will do a better job working with students in courses designing things to improve student motivation and confidence in students, and find topics they will be intrinsically motivated to study.”

Macdonald then discussed other areas she and her colleagues are working on in order to develop and improve the overall intellectual community.

“We promote undergraduate research, have departmental research trips and brown bag seminars where students present their work,” Macdonald said. “Those are things that work to build the community in the department.”

Macdonald has also done extensive work outside of the community at William and Mary to promote faculty development in the geosciences around the nation. In 2002, she co-founded On the Cutting Edge, which is a professional development program for geoscience faculty.

“We have worked with 1,600 faculty, which is about a quarter to a third of the geoscience faculty in the United States,” Macdonald said. “What we are trying to promote are self-reflective teachers.”

Macdonald has received many teaching awards throughout her career, including the Neil Miner Award in 2009, which is presented by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers each year for outstanding contributions to the encouragement of interest in the earth sciences.

Dr. Steven Driese, chair and professor of geology, who was also a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin with Macdonald, introduced Macdonald before her lecture.

“Dr. Macdonald’s career has been built around improving teaching in the geosciences and math and science generally,” Driese said. “Her years at William and Mary are notable for her sustained accomplishments and commitment to teaching excellence.”

Macdonald has received two awards from William and Mary, the 1990 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award and the 1989 William and Mary Alumni Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching Award.

The two other finalists for the Cherry Award are Dr. Allen Matusow, the W.G. Twyman professor of history and associate director for academic programs at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University; and Dr. Brian Coppola, Arthur F. Thurnau professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan, who will present his lecture at Baylor on Nov. 2.

The winner of the Cherry Award will teach in residence at Baylor during the 2012 fall or 2013 spring semester and will receive a prize of $250,000, the largest monetary award for teaching.

Their academic department at their home university will also receive $25,000.