For 600 first-year engineering students in the annual E-FIT Bootcamp for Academic Success, Ann-Marie Vollstedt is their introduction to the level of instruction and passion offered by faculty in the College of Engineering. During the one-week transition to college life, E-FIT participants listen to lectures on aerodynamics and projectiles to prepare them to build a trebuchet. The hands-on learning that is at the heart of the program, which Vollstedt has run since its inception in 2014, is key to her success as a lecturer.
That, and an infectious enthusiasm rooted in a love for teaching.
"It's my job to pump up my students' energy. We do a lot of hands-on learning. There are not many days when you just sit and take notes."
“It’s my job to pump up my students’ energy,” she said of her teaching style. “We do a lot of hands-on learning. There are not many days when you just sit and take notes.”
In addition to holding a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, Vollstedt completed a master’s in curriculum, teaching and learning, and she credits the course of study with influencing her classroom.
“My teaching M.S. opened my eyes,” she said. “Students have different learning styles, so I have to have different teaching styles. In engineering, a lot of students are kinesthetic learners, and it’s important to meet students where they are. So, I’m not going to talk more than five minutes without having students do something.”
Through the introductory engineering course (ENGR 100) and a statics course (ENGR 241), each year Vollstedt helps 1,000 students reach their full potential in the classroom, but she’s quick to point out that “teaching is not done just in the classroom. It’s helping students outside of the class, because students have so much going on in their lives. It’s important to be there for them.”
While Vollstedt typically teaches in large lecture halls, like everyone else on campus, she has had to adapt to alternative operations and teaching classes remotely.
“It is nice to be able to connect with others and keep our sense of community,” she said of her Zoom classes. “It is important to have a place to learn from each other.”
Despite the limitations of online course delivery – “I miss seeing my students’ faces,” she said – Vollstedt is exploring some of its advantages.
“I’ve been interested in it for a long time,” she said. “To be able to reach students who have scheduling issues but can log in later and watch your lecture is intriguing. There are challenges. We can’t do think-pair-share activities, but there are also benefits. For example, when a student emails me a question, I can record a video response and create a folder on WebCampus to share it with all the students.”
Vollstedt’s willingness to adapt ensures her classes remain relevant to her students. “You have to be open and ready for new things. Some times the best laid plans change. You might think you have a great lesson planned, but if you see confusion in your students, you have to say, ‘Abort!’ and try something else. You have to listen to your students. If I have a lot of skiers in class, my examples will have skiing in them. Or I’ll use a meme or YouTube. Every day is different.”
It must be working. Last year, Vollstedt won the F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher Award, and this year, she earned the Paul and Judy Bible Teaching Excellence Award. While the Tibbitts requires the nomination of one’s dean, the latter is student-nominated.
“It’s really an honor,” she said. “I try to make my classroom welcoming and inclusive, and I am appreciative that my students joined me on this journey. It’s very exciting.”