Featured Faculty: Sarah A. Cummings, the 2019 Paul & Judy Bible University Teaching Excellence Award winner
Teaching Professor Sarah Cummings provides instruction to neuroscience major Maria Rincon Olivares and chemistry major Rachel Tran during an April 1 "flipped" class session. Cummings' innovative teaching style has earned her recognition as the Paul & Judy Bible University Teaching Excellence Award winner. (Photo by Theresa Danna-Douglas)
If you take a stroll around the Quad on a Wednesday afternoon, you might run into Sarah Cummings chatting with one of her 200 organic chemistry students. The teaching professor and director of the University Core Curriculum program recently implemented walking office hours in an effort to break down barriers between herself and her pupils to help them develop as scientists, scholars, and people.
The success of her experiment is evident. After a post-doc at the University of Utah and a Ph.D. program at Columbia, Cummings took a post at the University in 2006. Since then, she has won the Alan Bible Teaching Excellence Award, the Gene LeMay Outstanding Teaching Award, the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award, and the Nevada System of Higher Education Teaching Award. Recently, she was also awarded the 2019 Paul & Judy Bible University Teaching Excellence Award, a donor-funded and student-nominated award designed to honor instructors who are making an impact through classroom instruction.
"It is wonderful to be recognized by colleagues," Cummings said, "but there is something inherently special about being recognized by those who have been with you throughout an entire class."
Peripatetic office hours are only the most recent innovation Cummings has introduced to help her students succeed. In 2015, she began converting her traditional classes into "flipped" classrooms. Designed to facilitate active learning, in Cummings' flipped classrooms, participants view video lectures at home and perform relevant work in the classroom.
"The idea behind a flipped classroom is that students can do some of the work that is traditionally more passive—like listen to lectures—outside of class, and then they can work on problem solving in class," Cummings explained. "This way, students can ask questions when problems arise, and I can have a more immediate understanding of what they understand and what they don't understand."
Because her classroom time is spent helping students work through problems, Cummings believes she has a greater connection with them. She finds they are more willing to take the initiative to come to office hours and seek guidance. Although it's only been a few years since she began teaching in a flipped format, Cummings says she is already seeing a decreased D-F-W (grades of D or F or withdrawal) rate.
"I would never go back to a traditional lecture-style format," Cummings said. "There is not a one-size-fits-all to teaching, but I've found that the flipped format allows me to serve as a coach, not only to my students but also to the undergraduate learning assistants who help out in class. This model for instruction feels true to myself, and it allows me to develop a mentor-mentee relationship with the undergraduate learning assistants while connecting better with my class."
When asked about her flipped classroom, Cummings is quick to note that many instructors across campus are incorporating active learning strategies into their curriculum, and she hopes to form more connections with colleagues who are striving to develop new ways to inspire students.
So, whether you are a chemistry student who has a question about covalent bonds or you're an instructor looking for advice on editing a video lectures, take a walk on the Quad and say hello to this year's inspirational winner of the Paul & Judy Bible University Teaching Excellence Award.