UND professor wins national teaching award
Award from Entomological Society of America goes to Rebecca Simmons, associate professor
Even the unassuming woolly bear caterpillar can be the captivating star of a story eons in the making.
Take it from UND Associate Professor Rebecca Simmons, who welcomes new students to her evolution course by telling them about the 2 inch-long bug.
“They eat poisonous plants and don’t die,” Simmons marvels. “Then they take those poisons and use them to deter predators.”
And that’s not all, Simmons tells her students. Eventually, the caterpillars transform into tiger moths, where their adventure continues: “They look scary!” she notes. “They look like wasps and bees in some cases, and they taste nasty. They make predators afraid of them – that’s millions of years of evolution.”
The point, Simmons says, is to show students that evolution is the world’s coolest topic.
“There are all of these amazing stories,” she said.
And thanks in no small part to Simmons’ skills at telling those stories, she now has won a national teaching award. This fall, Simmons will receive the Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching from the Entomological Society of America.
The award is presented annually to one teacher among the 7,000-member society deemed to be the most outstanding of the year.
“I was surprised and very flattered to be selected in a region full of powerhouse entomology schools,” Simmons said. “Seeing the list of eminent entomologists who have won this award, and being put among them, makes me anxious, honored and humbled at the same time. It’s sort of terrifying!”
An entomologist by training, Simmons has employed her insect expertise in teaching a range of biology courses at UND – including evolution – for the past 17 years, in addition to her extensive research in the field.
Flipping the classroom
But Simmons’ recognition by the world’s largest entomological society is no surprise to those who work with her on a daily basis, including Lee Qualley – a senior who transferred to UND from a community college.
Before taking that evolution course with Simmons, Qualley was bored with the life sciences and not sure what lay ahead in the biology program. Then Qualley experienced Simmons’ approach to teaching, advising and research.
“That class from my first semester was the most mentally stimulating course I’ve taken,” Qualley told UND Today. “She has made UND amazing for me.
“She took the information and applied it to everyday, real-world examples. She got us engaged in the research literature, which is really important to understand how to read. And we were doing these things in an interactive way where the group work works.”
“Flipped classroom” is the teaching method that Qualley was describing, according to Simmons, who regularly employs the tactic in teaching undergraduate biology courses.
Instead of standing in front of a captive audience to deliver a lecture and dole out assignments afterward, Simmons has students leading the charge with regard to learning objectives.
“They’ll come in having done the reading, and I’ll have a whole activity planned for a day or two,” Simmons said. “They come in and do the same work that scientists do.”
To extend her analogy, students work together to address research questions, develop hypotheses, test hypotheses by way of the planned activity and consult their peers to understand the veracity of their results.
From such a perspective, it might seem like students are doing all of the work, but that’s kind of the point, said Simmons.
“I think of myself as a personal trainer,” she said. “The personal trainer isn’t going to run the marathon for you, but they’re going to have the rubric, the formula to make it happen.”
So when students are using Pokémon to better understand evolutionary trees, seeing which of the fictional creatures are more closely related to each other, it obviously feels like playing games, Simmons said.
“But they’re learning,” she added. “And I can ask these students to do some really high-level stuff that I never did as an undergraduate. We’re covering graduate-level topics sometimes and they don’t realize it.”
Steadfast advocate for students
Of course, the Entomological Society of America is looking at more than a flipped classroom when selecting a professor for a national teaching award.
As featured in a past UND Today story about undergraduate research programs, Simmons has a continuing interest in mentorship and creating a more diverse body of STEM professionals.
“The chances of me being remembered for my individual research is likely going to be small,” Simmons said. “But I do hope to be remembered as someone who helped find the person that’s going to make the next great thing happen.”
“I want the people I work with to have different viewpoints than me,” she continued. “Because if they can see something differently, that’s going to change the field. … If we can get students to think in interdisciplinary ways – and if I can help that by bringing in people who didn’t think they could be good at this – that’s what I want.”
Associate Professors of Biology Peter Meberg and Diane Darland, department chair and department executive committee chair, respectively, wrote about Simmons’ steadfast advocacy for students in nominating her for the Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching,
Simmons has mentored numerous undergraduates in her lab, including those in the McNair Scholars Program (designed to prepare undergraduates for doctoral studies) and National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates. She also has been an active mentor for dozens of master’s students and Ph.D. candidates – some of whom have continued collaborating with Simmons on research.
“The numbers of students mentioned here does not include the impressive number of students who she has positively impacted with informal graduate advising or through her role as a thesis advisory committee member,” Meberg and Darland wrote.
Simmons is counted among the best advisors on campus, in addition to having served on UND’s Student Relations committee and several student hearings, her colleagues wrote. Citing a variety of direct student quotes, they commended Simmons as an outstanding listener who has made a “tremendous difference in the lives of countless students.”
“Dr. Simmons is thoroughly engaged at all levels of the teaching process and is unstinting in her willingness to help anyone who comes to her for ideas, brainstorming sessions or general support,” they said.
Qualley’s experience can also serve as a testament to Simmons’ exceptional record with students. Shortly after that first course Qualley took from Simmons, they requested Simmons to be their advisor. Today, Qualley works in Simmons’ Starcher Hall lab.
“She closed the information gap as someone new to the four-year university system,” Qualley said. “Through advising meetings and conversations, she was able to explain what to expect and how to interact with professors and instructors. She also helped me find resources and things available on campus to ensure my success. And so far it’s working.”
Leadership on-campus and at-large
When it comes to the Entomological Society of America, Simmons has worked her way to a leadership position through her 25-plus years of membership.
This year marks the end of her four-year stint as President of the Systematics, Evolution and Biodiversity Section of the organization, which represents more than 1,000 members who study insect anatomy, classification and history.
Through that role, Simmons has championed efforts to create a more diverse scientific workforce. She said the job involves a lot of listening, recruiting and trying to make people feel welcome in such a large group of peers. Organizational leaders also serve on task forces for the society at-large and review research papers, among other day-to-day operations.
Simmons will officially receive the award in October, during the society’s annual meeting in Denver, Colo.
“I’m really humbled and anxious, but my advisor promises that she’ll be waiting for me on the other side of the stage at the ceremony, which is extremely supportive,” Simmons said with a smile.
She credited the Department of Biology at UND for her success as a teacher, which has been reflected in multiple Teaching Awards for Excellence. Simmons also noted Anne Kelsch, director of faculty development, and the Teaching Transformation and Development Academy’s role in shaping her interactive teaching style, saying that the program brings out the best in faculty across UND.
“I’m very lucky to work with the people I count as co-PIs and those same people who always want the best for students, which has helped me thrive in this department,” Simmons said.