Professor Renée Cole of the University of Iowa Department of Chemistry has won the 2021 Collegiate Teaching Award, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences announced.
Cole, who was named CLAS Collegiate Scholar in 2018, is not only an excellent teacher and mentor, but she also focuses her research on teaching.
An expert in the area of chemical education, as well as STEM education more broadly, she is interested in issues related to how students learn chemistry and how that guides the design of instructional materials and teaching strategies. She is also interested in how to effectively translate discipline-based research to the practice of teaching, thus increasing the impact of this research and improving undergraduate STEM education.
Cole is the principal investigator for a number of National Science Foundation-funded projects such as the Increase the Impact Project, which developed resources to improve the propagation of educational innovations; the ELIPSS Project, which is developing resources to assess transferable skills in the classroom; and other projects related to institutional transformation of instruction in STEM. In addition to her work on undergraduate education, she mentors graduate students, serving as chair of several doctoral committees. Professor Cole is Program Chair for the Women Chemist Committee of the American Chemical Society, and is the UI representative for the AAU STEM Initiative.
Given her research interests, it is not surprising that Cole takes great interest in supporting graduate teaching assistants in her department.
"As a graduate student under the mentorship of Dr. Cole, I want to acknowledge her dedication to helping all teaching assistants in the Department of Chemistry," noted one graduate student. "At the beginning of each academic year, Dr. Cole works tirelessly to ensure that all teaching assistants are properly trained and equipped with the necessary toolkit to successfully run a classroom."
One of Cole's projects has been developing and implementing a Learning Assistant program in the Department of Chemistry. Devised for in-person teaching, the program is also well suited for virtual learning. The learning assistants focus on how to duplicate the activity and interactions that occur in a physical classroom and engage students with the material. The assistants guide groups of about 20 students through pre-recorded lectures, pausing the video at appropriate times to facilitate productive conversations about the course material. As they discuss the material with students, they learn what points of confusion may exist, and relate that back to the course instructor.
One of those assistants said the Learning Assistant program is just one facet of Cole's excellent teaching.
"During the time I have spent with Dr. Cole, she has always striven to create a better learning environment for her students," the undergraduate said. "She has studied various ways to improve student learning, whether it is by changing the way the curriculum is taught or by creating new ways for the students to get help. Under Dr. Cole, a new Learning Assistant program was developed at the University of Iowa. Since I was part of the pilot group for the LA program, I had a chance to sit in the front row and witness firsthand the help and improvement this new system brought to the students’ lives, especially during the time of a pandemic. She is an amazing professor."
Cole's faculty colleagues share her students' respect for her expertise and teaching skills.
"It is difficult to conceive that there is anyone more deserving of the Collegiate Teaching Award," said Leonard MacGillivray, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. "Renee joined our Department in 2011 and during the last decade has made an indelible impact in teaching on the department, college, and university that places the University of Iowa at the forefront."
Cole, a Fellow of the American Chemical Society, earned her PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Oklahoma.