Teaching Associate Professor in the Department of Biology Pamela Sandstrom has received the 2021 Regents’ Teaching Award for her distinguished record of teaching. Sandstrom began teaching in the Department of Biology in 2002 while still in graduate school and, immediately after graduating, became a talented instructor and key faculty member tasked with teaching large-enrollment courses for undergraduate life sciences majors, undergraduate professional health care majors and students pursuing post-graduate education in health care. Sandstrom developed a peer-led team learning program for students in her large enrollment courses and has served as a role model and mentor for the many undergraduates she directs and supervises, many of whom congratulated her on receiving her award in the edited video included in this article. Her creative, innovative and effective teaching strategies earned her the worthy recognition of the Regents’ Teaching Award. Below she answers a few questions about her teaching style, overcoming the challenges of virtual teaching this past year, and more.
How would you describe your teaching style?
Many of the strong relationships that I have built over the years have matured from my willingness to share my own nontraditional path: how I needed a speech therapist in elementary school, selected UC Davis from the Encyclopedia of Britannica, declined acceptance to medical school, and defended my dissertation with a three-month-old in tow.
To me, undergraduate teaching and lecturing are not synonymous. In fact, my favorite aspect of teaching is not the time spent in a lecture hall, but rather my mentorship that ignites a passion for learning in a diverse group of students. Many of the strong relationships that I have built over the years have matured from my willingness to share my own nontraditional path: how I needed a speech therapist in elementary school, selected UC Davis from the Encyclopedia of Britannica, declined acceptance to medical school, and defended my dissertation with a three-month-old in tow. In addition to being approachable, I strive to be clear and enthusiastic in order to create an environment that encourages student engagement and inquiry. I plainly convey the course objectives and expectations and hold my students accountable for their learning. This allows me to create a collaborative learning environment that increases student retention while fostering teamwork and critical thinking skills that will be required of them in their future careers.
What does it mean to you to have received this award?
I am very grateful to have received the Regents’ Teaching Award. Earning such a recognition is profound as I have spent most of my life flying under the ‘academic’ radar. I wasn’t invited to partake in any elementary ‘gifted’ programs, nor was I the valedictorian at my small high school. I didn’t receive undergraduate recognition, not even plain old “cum laude.” However, my confidence in my career choice has developed with many student comments about how I influenced their education. Today, I delight in having been named a mentor by 14 Westfall Scholars and 6 Senior Scholars who probably all graduated “summa cum laude”. It is truly humbling that I have earned the confidence and support of so many individuals.
You’ve done a number of presentations on the scholarship of teaching and learning. What advice can you share from those presentations that would be useful to a new professor or to a young student hoping to be successful?
I have gained invaluable perspective from discussing the scholarship of teaching and learning with other faculty and guest speakers at professional conferences, including those associated with the Learning Assistant Alliance (LAA) and UTeach. My approach to teaching has progressively changed. It became transparent over the years that an increasing number of students in my high-enrollment lectures were disengaged and were not learning or retaining the material. Therefore, despite much resistance, I have become adamant about transforming my classes to cultivate active learning. My advice to a new professor or to a young student hoping to be successful would be the same— strive to be resilient and have the courage to embrace change.
From virtual classes to drastically altered lab courses, this past year has presented a number of unexpected obstacles for our professors. How did you overcome the challenges that arose during the COVID-19 global pandemic?
Higher education is no exception to the drastic changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The title of a National Institute on Scientific Teaching presentation resonated well with me, “Teaching with ‘unmuted’ care, purpose, and hope during times of uncertainty and challenge.” While I embraced the task of transforming my lecture-only courses and improving virtual teaching practices, I have quailed over how to do this fairly in the context of a global pandemic and other societal issues. As I teach from a computer in my bedroom, I dearly miss interacting with my students and those visual cues provided from being in a physical classroom. To overcome the challenges that have arose during the pandemic, I have relied on my family and friends, including my OTF gym to keep me grounded, and my colleagues and Biology peer instructors to help me assess student learning and improve the virtual classroom.
Is there any one moment or experience you’ve had as a teaching professor that stands out as especially meaningful and impactful for you?
Two decades ago, I looked through the University of Nevada, Reno, catalog and selected two classes PHAR 600, Intro to Human Pharmacology, and GRAD 701, College Teaching I. The latter might have been designed for graduate teaching assistants, but between the two classes, I was convinced to pursue a graduate degree. Despite my obligation to my doctorate research, I consistently found myself gravitating towards additional teaching assistantships. Early teaching positions at TMCC and our university solidified my desire to continue with this career path. However, it has been my colleague, Dr. Elena Pravosudova, who has consistently inspired me to focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning these past 13 years. Together, with the support of our university, especially the College of Science, and many other amazing colleagues with like-minded goals, we have built a robust Peer Instruction Program in which around 450 undergraduates have held over 1,100 positions. Dr. Pravosudova and I never imagined how successful the program would be; we are constantly amazed by the growing community of learners.
What impact do you hope to have on your students and at the University?
Nevada is my home and I embrace the vision of a Healthy Nevada. I believe the University of Nevada, Reno, undoubtably plays a key role in making that dream a reality. I have been privileged to have had a multitude of incredible faculty provide me with invaluable mentorship. I am happy that I have had the opportunity to give back to students who choose to get their education at our amazing institution, and I hope to be able to continue to do so.