LSC TA’s “backwards” approach earns her an Innovation in Teaching award

Molly Simis

Teaching assistant Molly Simis would be the first to tell you that her approach to teaching is backwards. And that’s a good thing—good enough to earn her a campus-wide Innovation in Teaching Award, sponsored by the College of Letters and Sciences.

The reward recognizes her efforts to design a new approach for teaching Science, Media & Society, taught by Life Sciences Communications professor Dietram Scheufele. After serving as TA when the course was initially offered last spring, Simis applied to the UW Teaching Academy’s Summer Institute so that she could “workshop” a new instructional model for the class.

“I was thinking about new ways to develop content, which includes planning flipped classroom experiences and restructuring the syllabus so it reflects a backwards design plan,” she explains. Flipping the classroom means offering the traditional class material—the lectures—outside of class so that class time can be used for the engaged learning—the assignments—that students usually do on their own.

There’s a lot of extra work involved, including creating video lectures that students can view online. It’s Simis’ motivation to do that work that sets her apart, Scheufele says.

“She is one of those rare people who is not just driven by the idea of being a creative and effective teacher, but who is also willing to invest the time and energy to actually translate her ideals into reality in the classroom,” Scheufele says. “Molly contacted me literally the day we hired her as a TA for the first time to talk about her ideas for the course and ways in which she thought we could enhance the learning experience for students and link course objectives more explicitly to learning outcomes.”

That kind of passion is especially important for a course like Science, Technology and Society, which tackles such politically charged issues as GMOs, stem cell research and synthetic biology, Scheufele says. “Finding evidence-based answers to these questions, and sometimes realizing that there is not a single answer, is not always easy for students.”

Her interest in instructional strategies has deep roots, Simis says. “ I come from a family of educators, so this is something I talk about in my personal life. I think that has affected how I approach the university classroom, toward how it can be the most effective learning environment.”

Not surprisingly, she is setting her sights on  a “teaching-heavy” position at a university. “I’ve been telling people that I want to teach in a small liberal arts college classroom, but I realize that I have no idea what that’s like, so my goal this semester is to sit in on some courses at Edgewood or Madison College to help inform that decision,” she says.