Carmen Huffman, an associate professor of chemistry at Western Carolina University, says part of what keeps her motivated as a teacher is that her work is ever-changing, always with something new to try to help her students learn. But an even greater motivation for her are the interactions she has with them.
“Each student has unique strengths and weaknesses, and I love working with them on their own personal journeys of learning chemistry and developing as a lifelong learner,” Huffman said. “Each day, I learn more chemistry, I learn more about education, and I learn more about the human spirit. What more could I ask for?”
Huffman was recently named one of the premiere teachers in the University of North Carolina system in recognition of her superior ability to teach some of the more difficult chemistry courses on campus while also challenging her students to have the courage to seek answers for themselves. She is among 17 recipients of the 2016 UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.
Huffman began teaching at WCU in August 2005, shortly after receiving her doctorate in chemistry at the University of Maryland. “Like many professors, the inspiration for my career stems from interactions with good teachers,” she said. “In high school, I had two spectacular chemistry teachers who made me absolutely eager to learn more. So, in college, I studied chemistry and continued to be inspired by teachers who showed me I was just starting to scratch the surface of understanding what chemistry is all about. I was left wanting to know more.”
The Board of Governors Award committee noted that Huffman has transformed her teaching by incorporating inquiry-based methods to create engaging and interactive learning environments. Her classes use Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, also known as POGIL, as a way for groups of students to investigate challenging real-world questions. A peer observer commented that Huffman’s students do not just learn physical chemistry and science, but “she teaches them how to be curious about what they are learning, to ask good questions, and to have their own courage to seek answers for themselves.”
In a statement of support for the Board of Governors Award, David Evanoff, head of WCU’s Department of Chemistry and Physics, praised Huffman’s “absolute passion for truly engaged learning, helping her students to embrace the idea that knowledge is all around them and is there for the taking.”
In her classroom, Huffman also seeks to prepare students for their careers by emphasizing “transferable skills” that cross disciplinary boundaries, such as good communications skills and the ability to work with groups of people. Her physical chemistry lab is a writing-intensive course in which students write a proposal, carry out an experiment, prepare a report, and present their findings to the class orally.
“They experience the entire scientific method from hypothesis to communication of results in a three-week period. Simultaneously, they have enhanced their reading, writing and oral communication skills,” Huffman said. “I’ve been told many times that, although they initially dislike this project because it is difficult, it becomes their favorite part of the course and the component that has taught them the most.”
Colleagues of Huffman have noted that she “has found an ideal balance between encouraging and challenging her students and demonstrating genuine care for them.” A former student said Huffman “has an amazing way of presenting material, and always asks for our feedback. One of the things that I really admire about Dr. Huffman is how she always responds to email or a question you may have. There is never any doubt that she won’t respond or help you out. For that, I really do appreciate all she has done.”
Huffman’s other teaching honors at WCU include the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award in 2012 and a commendation as a previous finalist for the Board of Governors Award.
A member of the Board of Governors is scheduled to present the award to Huffman during WCU’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies that begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 7. Huffman also will speak at the Graduate School commencement ceremony Friday, May 6.
Huffman and other recipients of the UNC honor, representing an array of academic disciplines, were nominated by special committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Personnel and Tenure.
Established by the Board of Governors in April 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university system, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institution at least seven years, and no one may receive the award more than once.
By Randall Holcombe