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2012 Dean’s Award: Allison Schmitt

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching

Allison A. Schmitt, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry, received a B.S. in Chemistry and Biochemistry with distinction from the University of Washington. Her research focuses on understanding the thermodynamics of additivity in ligand binding in several protein-ligand systems utilizing isothermal titration calorimetry, organic synthesis and x-ray crystallography techniques.

Allison is perceived by her students to be a highly intelligent, enthusiastic advocate who is focused on helping them get the most out of their chemistry courses. One student comments "Allison is so approachable! She is very willing to meet with us outside class, and her office hours are very, very helpful. I really appreciate her coming in on Sunday to work with us. I really get the feeling that she sincerely wants us to succeed. Also, her teaching style is very clear and direct-she makes the concepts seem very clear." Another student seconds this perception, saying "The fact that she doesn't assume we automatically understand everything that happens in lecture is awesome. She has a concise and clear way of explaining things." How this affects the students on a personal level is evident in yet another comment, "My TA rocks! She actually wants to teach us, is interested in us learning, and remains laid back somehow despite being intense. It was extremely uplifting to have someone who cared and getting that personal interaction."

It is clear in the student's comments that Allison's teaching philosophy and its practice are very effective. Allison says that she teaches "from the perspective that the role of an effective instructor in the classroom is to facilitate student inquiry and exploration of the concepts presented. Instead of telling students how to approach a concept or solve a problem, I guide students through the thought process necessary to solve problems independently." Students respond to how she executes this philosophy in the learning environment, as she describes it, "My classroom is a high-energy, interactive space for learning. To promote this energy, I teach by a modified Socratic method, asking frequent open-ended questions of students in an effort to guide them through the process necessary to answer a question or approach a problem. Students are free to respond, and most of the time, they respond often." That this approach works well for her is due, no doubt, to her belief that "the creation and development of rapport with students and teaching peers is absolutely essential to excellent teaching. Building respectful relationships with students is integral to creating an interactive classroom with high student participation."

Allison's success with students is noted by faculty members, one of whom notes that before she became a TA for his class, "I had heard wonderful things about her prior to that semester, and so my expectations were high at the outset, but even so they were exceeded-and not by a small margin." In fact, he goes on to say that "What Allison accomplished in this setting was spectacular. She mastered the three-pronged balancing act of being perfectly prepared and organized, strict and forceful about expectations, and yet opening empathetic about student performance," all of which is accomplished with "a spirit and personality that engenders a sense of community."

Another faculty member adds that Allison "helped me understand the needs of students better than ever before and thus be able to structure my lectures in ways that were maximally effective. She has an unusual knack for being able to drill down when needed and to move on when warranted. She makes each student feel as if he or she were the most important student in the class. I envy her ability." Another faculty member summarizes that Allison demonstrates "all of the easily quantifiable characteristics that make for a great teacher: organization, understanding, clarity in communication, depth in explanation," explaining, however, that "it is the ever-elusive ‘it' that she has that creates a sense of alliance with the students that she is shepherding through challenging material."