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Geologist-educator is finalist for $250,000 teaching award

  • Teaching award finalistHeather Macdonald is passionate about the earth sciences and equally passionate about the teaching of earth sciences.

    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

    Teaching award finalist

Heather Macdonald is passionate about the earth sciences and equally passionate about the teaching of earth sciences.

Macdonald, the Chancellor Professor of Geology at William & Mary, was recognized for her excellence in teaching by being named as a finalist for Baylor University’s Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. She is one of three finalists for the honor, to be announced in spring of 2012. Each finalist will receive $15,000 and will be invited to present a series of lectures at Baylor University in the fall. Macdonald also will present a Cherry Award Lecture on her home campus of William & Mary.

In addition, the home department of all finalists will receive $10,000 to foster the development of teaching skills. The winner of the Cherry Award will receive a prize of $250,000 and will teach in residence at Baylor during the 2012 fall or 2013 spring semester. The home department of the winner will receive an additional $25,000.

Macdonald has been teaching geology at William & Mary since 1983. For years, she taught Physical Geology—one of the department’s introductory courses—which met Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m. Her goal was to captivate her students, despite the early hour, to get them hooked on the stories being told by the Earth.

“I wanted to get them to the point where they would stop and look at outcrops as they were driving around the country,” she said, noting that the roadside geological features are handy teaching tools for earth-science teachers. “There’s a great John McPhee quote that says that through geology, we can ‘inhabit scenes no one ever saw.’ Outcrops give us that great picture of what the Earth was like in the past.”

To get students used to seeing those sorts of pictures, Macdonald takes her classes in the field, most recently over the James River to a favorite outcrop at Chippokes Plantation State Park. She urges them to uncover the story revealed by the fossils and sediment evident in the formation.

“I love to see that moment when a student gets what the outcrop is telling us: Millions of years ago, this area was covered by an ocean,” she said. “That’s a great conceptual leap.”

Macdonald was an experienced teacher before coming to William & Mary, even before she began undergraduate work at Carleton College, where she graduated in 1976. In high school, she participated in a program in which selected students taught in the district’s elementary schools three days a week.

“In retrospect it’s quite astonishing that elementary school teachers would let high school students teach for that amount of time, but I taught French to kindergarteners one year,” she said. “When I was a senior, I taught mathematics to sixth graders. I’ve always been interested in teaching and getting others excited about the things that I am passionate about.”

A passion for the material is one of the elements of Macdonald’s teaching philosophy, along with a goal-oriented approach to both courses and the curriculum, and a deep understanding of the importance of mentoring.

“A hallmark of her teaching is her use of innovative techniques to engage students in the classroom, moving beyond the traditional lecture approach when appropriate and desirable,” wrote Brent Owens, chair of William & Mary’s Geology Department, in a letter supporting Macdonald’s nomination for the Cherry Award. “Indeed, she has been a national leader in this particular aspect of teaching for many years.”

Macdonald also teaches upper-level geology courses and in recent years has begun working with graduate students. Her teaching “evolved,” she says as she began teaching graduate courses on college teaching and mentoring faculty members new to the profession.

“I’m very interested in improving student learning by working with the people who will teach them,” she said. Working with a group of geoscientists and other educators such as Barbara Tewksbury of Hamilton College, she began holding workshops for faculty early in their careers, featuring innovative and effective approaches to teaching the geosciences. They also offered workshops on course design, where they urged attendees to focus on course goals and what they want accomplish in the courses. 

In 2002, On the Cutting Edge, a professional development program for geoscience faculty, was launched by Macdonald and Tewksbury, along with Cathy Manduca of Carleton and David Mogk of Montana State University. One of the hallmarks of the program is an integrated and synergistic workshop series and website. 

Both the workshops and the website have attracted notice. In 2010, Macdonald and the rest of the team behind On the Cutting Edge were awarded the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The site also won the 2009 Best Website Award from the Geoscience Information Society.

The workshops have attracted more than eight million dollars in financial support from the National Science Foundation. The NSF funding supports a June, 2011 workshop at William & Mary that Macdonald is convening for early-career geoscience faculty from across the country.

Macdonald remains an active educator of educators on campus, as well. This semester Macdonald is co-teaching a course on college-level teaching with Sharon Zuber of William & Mary’s English department. In the fall, she will teach a course on college science teaching at the College’s School of Marine Science at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). Macdonald also is the co-director, with Elizabeth Canuel from VIMS, of the College’s new minor in marine science.

“Even at William & Mary, whose centuries-old hallmark is excellence in teaching, Professor Macdonald stands out as a professor with few peers,” College Provost Michael Halleran wrote in his letter nominating Macdonald for the Cherry Award. “Indeed, I think it would be unlikely to meet a geologist in the United States who is unaware of Professor Macdonald’s seminal contributions to the advancement of excellence in teaching in the discipline.”

A Fellow of the Geological Society of America, Macdonald has been honored numerous times for teaching, including the 2009 Neil Miner Award presented by the National Association of Geoscience Teachers each year to one individual for exceptional contributions to the stimulation of interest in the earth sciences; the 2003 State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award; 1992 BEST (Biggs Earth Science Teaching) Award, given by the Geological Society of America annually to one faculty member in his/her first 10 years of teaching; the 1990 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award from William and Mary; 1989 William and Mary Alumni Fellowship for Excellence in Teaching; and the 1979 Stanley A. Tyler Award for Excellence in Teaching by the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wisconsin.

Macdonald’s co-finalists for the Cherry Award are Brian P. Coppola, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry, at the University of Michigan; and Allen J. Matusow, W.G. Twyman Professor of History, at Rice University.

The announcement from Baylor University notes that the Cherry Award is the United States’ only national award presented by a college or university to an individual for exceptional teaching. It also carries the single largest monetary prize.

 “The Cherry Award program is designed to honor great teachers, to stimulate discussion in the academy about the value of teaching and to encourage departments and institutions to value their own great teachers,” the announcement said.

The award was created by Robert Foster Cherry, who earned his A.B. from Baylor in 1929. He enrolled in the Baylor Law School in 1932 and passed the Texas State Bar Examination the following year. With a deep appreciation for how his life had been changed by significant teachers, he made an exceptional estate bequest to establish the Cherry Award program to recognize excellent teachers and bring them in contact with Baylor students. The first Robert Foster Cherry Award was made in 1991 and has since been awarded biennially.