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2009 University Exemplary Department Award salutes Department of Chemistry, Earth Sustainability project


BLACKSBURG, Va., Dec. 4, 2009 – Virginia Tech's Department of Chemistry in the College of Science and the Earth Sustainability project have been recognized as the university's 2009 University Exemplary Department Award winners.

Presented annually since 1994, the University Exemplary Department Award recognizes the work of departments or programs that enhance the teaching and learning environment for students and faculty.

This year, the awards were presented to departments and programs that effectively linked research and scholarship with teaching, with particular emphasis on innovative undergraduate programs.

“Giving students the opportunity to learn directly from researchers and scholars who are at the forefront of their fields — that is what makes a Virginia Tech education unique,” said Mark McNamee, senior vice president and provost. “Integrating one’s research into one’s curriculum takes a special effort, and that effort is rewarded endlessly in how it helps our students learn more deeply than they could ever imagine.”

The Department of Chemistry and the Earth Sustainability project will share the $40,000 prize given by the Office of the Provost. A reception to honor the two recipients will be held Feb. 2, 2010, at The Inn at Virginia Tech from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the Latham Ballroom.

A complete list of past Exemplary Department Award winners, along with the theme of the award for each year, is available online.

Department of Chemistry, College of Science

Growth in student enrollment in chemistry courses, and in the number of chemistry majors, has increased steadily since 2003. In addition, chemistry continues to be one of the most research productive departments at Virginia Tech with research awards totaling $17 million over the past two years.

“We continuously work to provide the best education possible for all of our students; coupling faculty our research and scholarship to the classroom and teaching laboratories is of prime importance to the department,” said Joe Merola, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry. “In order to keep our classes fresh and to give students exposure to a broad range of chemistry professors, all professors rotate through a series of courses usually spending no more than three years on any one course. We ask all faculty to teach the larger, service-oriented classes such as general chemistry and organic chemistry. To a person, research from their laboratories and from the laboratories of their colleagues is skillfully woven into whatever course is taught.”

To improve student retention and success, for example, chemistry professor Patricia Amateis added recitation sections to General Chemistry (Chem1035) last spring. She received funding to hire outstanding juniors and seniors to lead those recitations that discuss problem-solving techniques in small groups. As a result, students in the Chem 1035 course had a higher success rate, and recitation leaders learned the subject much more deeply through teaching.

“In addition, one of the hallmarks of this department is our commitment to individual student mentoring,” said Merola. Our alumni, and exiting seniors have consistently said that their chemistry professors were exceptionally caring and accessible, creating an exceptional learning environment. And we provide this not only to our majors, but also to students in other majors who are required to take chemistry courses”

The department also helps students to be more successful communicators by incorporating a range of communication skills (oral, written, presentations, and posters) by requiring all undergraduate researchers to participate in a research symposium at the end of each semester.

In his letter of support for the departments nomination for the Exemplary Department Award, chemistry graduate Paul Chirik, who holds the Peter J. W. Debye Chair in Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell University, wrote, “I can honestly state that my time in the Chemistry Department at [Virginia] Tech was the foundation for my accomplishments. I can think of no department with a stronger commitment to undergraduate teaching and research and none more deserving than recognition with an exemplary award.”

Earth Sustainability

Earth Sustainability is a four-semester series of courses that explore issues surrounding the sustainable use of natural and human resources from which we produce food, safe water, energy, and shelter. Students in the interdisciplinary Earth Sustainability course series integrate knowledge and information from the natural and social sciences, humanities, mathematics, and engineering in order to better understand humanity’s impact on the Earth’s systems.

“The Earth Sustainability series represents an emerging model for general education that engages participants in real-world, messy issues by challenging them to think critically and act creatively while supporting them to develop the essential skills and knowledge to do so,” said Barbara Bekken, assistant professor of geosciences and director of the Earth Sustainability project. “The Earth Sustainability program has effectively linked research and scholarship with teaching in support of this most innovative of undergraduate programs.”

Since its inception in 2004, the Earth Sustainability project has brought a collaborative team of faculty, administrators, and staff from across different departments and colleges together to offer undergraduates an alternative to the traditional Curriculum for Liberal Education. Designed around well established research and scholarship on student development and cognition, this two-year, interdisciplinary, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)-saturated program instantiates the goals, objectives, and pedagogies advocated by such research on learning in the early college years.

The Earth Sustainability program works because it unites diverse faculty, doctoral candidates, and other professionals who are excited by sustainability and learning,” said Bekken. “It gives participants an opportunity to produce scholarly work, thus sustaining the desire to learn, test, evaluate, and contribute professionally.”

Since 2004, program participants have made presentations at more than 20 conferences, authored five publications, and presented four campus workshops. Longitudinal research on student learning and faculty development has been supported by the National Science Foundation.