Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prizes honor five faculty projects


Five faculty projects that involve innovative approaches to improving student learning are being honored with the 12th annual Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prizes. 

Patrick Barry, Soojin Kwon, Annica Cuppetelli, Robin Fowler, Laura Alford, Stephanie Sheffield, Thomas Schmidt and David A. Zopf led the projects. The winners were chosen out of 39 nominations submitted by students, faculty and staff.

Honorees are normally honored on the opening day of the Enriching Scholarship conference in May. However, with COVID-19 canceling or postponing most campus events, organizers are looking for another way to celebrate the winners at a future date. In keeping with current financial restrictions, distribution of the $5,000 TIP award money also will be delayed.

The Provost’s Teaching Innovative Prize is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the University Library.

The following project descriptions were compiled from the finalists’ applications:

Good with Words: Transforming the Teaching of Public Speaking

Patrick Barry, clinical assistant professor of law, Law School; and Soojin Kwon, managing director of the full-time MBA program and adjunct lecturer in business, Stephen M. Ross School of Business 

One of the most important skills all professionals need to develop — the ability to speak clearly and compellingly — is often undertaught. Barry initially created Good with Words to help law students address this problem through a suite of in-person, digital and print resources. Kwon helped expand the project to the business school.

 Pop-up workshops allow students to attend the sessions most relevant to them. Topics have included how to deliver an apology, how to pitch investors, how to give and get quality feedback, and how to speak with poise. 

Good with Words has also produced 26 short videos that break down different elements of effective public speaking. The videos are freely available through a playlist on the Law School’s YouTube channel. 

The final component is a book that collects the various concepts, exercises and examples used in the in-person workshops. With the help of a recent grant from CRLT and the backing of Michigan Publishing, the plan is to make an electronic edition of the book freely available online. 

Bridgette A. Carr, associate dean of strategic initiatives and clinical professor of law at the Law School, and director of the Human Trafficking Clinic, wrote in a letter of support that Barry has created a far better way to approach verbal communication than exists in any of the current materials being used to teach the essential skill. She said she is glad he and Kwon took the initiative to create Good with Words as a workshop series and that they continue to try to expand its reach.

“Original, interdisciplinary, student-centered, and definitely something many more people can build on and use, it is the perfect project through which to showcase what the best of Michigan teaching has to offer,” Carr wrote. 

The Gender-Neutral Fibers Initiative: Leveraging the Creative Process for Inclusive Learning

Annica Cuppetelli, lecturer II in art and design, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design 

The Gender-Neutral Fibers Initiative provides a framework for the collective questioning of established gender roles through classroom activities that enable students to understand and address the issue on their own terms.

The garment industry’s perpetuation of gender binaries may seem obvious, in that the industry has long established conventions for how men and women should look and hold their bodies. In this history, women often function as frames for aesthetic display and men as mobile agents, with no variation in between. 

Given that background, and to address the growing interest students have in non-binary and gender-fluid approaches, Cuppetelli introduced the G-N Fibers Initiative into her courses to create expressive outlets for students to explore gender issues.

The core idea of the initiative is the crafting of assignments that make exploring gender issues either an option that the student chooses or a tangent that he or she can investigate. The assignment is paired with readings and discussions intended to allow students to explore these issues without forcing them to adopt a particular worldview. The approach creates a classroom environment that feels inclusive and allows interested students to safely engage with these issues. 

Cuppetelli said the approach can be used in other disciplines that also struggle with gender disparities, such as design, sculpture or architecture, with a goal of shining a light into these gaps in order to make education a more equitable and inclusive endeavor. 

In his letter of support, student Dante Betsch said Cuppetelli and the Gender-Neutral Fibers Initiative exemplify the practices and values of transparency and inclusion.

“Professor Cuppetelli has been one of the most influential voices within my time at the Stamps School of Art & Design,” Betsch wrote. “Through her Gender-Neutral Fibers Initiative, she creates an open-minded atmosphere for students to explore and develop our voices as artists. As an active artist herself and being critically self-reflective and inclusive, she offers students the opportunity to engage in open ended dialogues prompted by suggestions rather than solutions and framed by respect and transparency.”

Tandem: Automating Tailored Guidance for Students Working in Teams

Robin Fowler, lecturer IV in technical communication; Laura Alford, lecturer IV in naval architecture and marine engineering; and Stephanie Sheffield, lecturer IV in technical communication, all in the College of Engineering

Tandem is a research-based tool that supports students working in teams and the faculty who teach and mentor student teams. It uses data gathered weekly to provide students with a graph that clearly shows how a team rates itself on key measures of team functioning. Students are able to recognize and begin to address any issues with the team as they arise.  

The weekly data can be used to provide tailored lessons based on challenges a specific team is facing. Tandem rates each team and each student as “working well,” “approaching trouble” or “needing support.” Those assessments are displayed on Tandem’s faculty dashboard, enabling faculty to focus on those teams and individuals that need support, while teams that are “working well” can be left alone until they would benefit from intervention. 

Student Francesca Duong said in her letter of support that she used Tandem in her ENGR 100: Underwater Vehicles class, where students learn the basics of engineering design by working in groups to build an underwater remotely operated vehicle. 

“One of the things I appreciated about Tandem was that it made me feel like my voice was being heard,” Duong wrote. “Oftentimes, I think many students don’t believe that the instructors are aware of the issues within teamwork or how the work can be disproportionately distributed. Tandem was a great way for the instructors to identify that and provide us support.”

Trust Your Gut: Retaining STEM Students Through Authentic Research

Thomas Schmidt, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, LSA; professor of internal medicine, and of microbiology and immunology, Medical School

With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Schmidt developed a research-centric introductory biology lab course that gives students the chance to engage in authentic research about the composition and function of gut microbiomes and the key roles they play in human health and major chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and asthma.

Over the past five years, increasing numbers of students have lined up to participate in the popular course. Most have also consented for their results to be used in research.  

Acting as both the investigators and subjects of study, students generate data about their microbiomes each semester. Applying skills learned in the course, they develop and test hypotheses about their microbiomes, culminating in final projects where they present their findings and sparking ideas that may be pursued in Schmidt’s lab’s research and in subsequent semesters.

In addition to exploring their own microbiomes, students are motivated by the knowledge that the data generated from their samples is used to develop microbiome-focused therapies for clinical studies. For example, three different research projects in the Medical School with implications for weight maintenance, bone marrow transplants and the use of atypical antipsychotics have been informed by student results. 

In a nominating letter of support, Diarmaid Ó Foighil, chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, called Schmidt’s class “groundbreaking.” 

“The entire microbiome course from beginning to end is an innovation — one that engages students directly in tangible research that they feel ownership of and that is meaningfully linked to the scientific literature and to clinical studies at the U-M hospital,” Foighil wrote. 

Building High-Stakes Skills Outside the OR: Using Realistic, Low-Cost 3D Models to Train New Surgeons

David A. Zopf, assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, Medical School

Surgical education classically begins with preparatory “book learning” followed by Halsteadean techniques of “see one, do one, teach one.” In the field of pediatric surgery, however, some of the commonly used tools for education, such as cadaveric dissection, are not available.

By turning to new technologies of additive manufacturing and 3-D printing, very lifelike composite models of various soft and hard tissues can be produced based on anatomic data. These low-cost surgical simulators provide trainees experience with key portions of complex and/or rare procedures, allowing them to hone their skills without any risk to patients.

Zopf’s team has been recognized for leading the development, validation and instructional use of high fidelity, 3-D printed surgical simulators, as well as creating curriculum and assessment instruments to gauge short- and long-term outcomes of and benefits to medical and surgical education. Zopf has used the simulators both nationally and internationally, for example, teaching cleft lip/palate repair in New Orleans and Cusco, Peru, and airway reconstruction in San Diego.  

Glenn Green, professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery, wrote in a letter of support that Zopf’s work is paradigm-breaking and provides for more effective training. He said the simulators have enabled trainees to develop their capacity to perform rare, advanced surgical procedures with precise anatomic models. 

“It is not surprising that the University of Michigan has become the top-rated in the country for resident and student surgical training in large part due to his work,” Green wrote.


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