February 2021: Aaron Geller
Instructor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Chemistry
Excellence in Teaching Award from the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech
The award, presented by the center to approximately nine Virginia Tech faculty members each academic year, recognizes a faculty member's effective, engaged, and dynamic approaches and achievements as an educator.
Among the goals of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning are advancing experiential learning at Virginia Tech and improving student learning through research-based instructional practices and student-centered design. Geller’s approach to teaching is dynamic, mixing traditional chalkboard methods with visual presentations and discussions that engage students and help them embrace the complexity of the subject matter. “I try to create an atmosphere that fosters participation and questions in which the lecture hall becomes more like a large, open forum,” Geller said. “I try to show how complicated chemistry concepts and definitions can actually be linked to students’ intuition and natural vocabulary.” He brings a nurturing brand of rigor to his lab courses as well, implementing Guided Inquiry to push students beyond simply following a recipe.
Amanda Gunzel, a former student, says that Geller’s caring and enthusiasm is what captured her attention, challenged her to dive deeper into the course material, and encouraged her personal growth. “Passion is hands down the first word I think of when I try to explain my experience with Dr. Geller’s courses,” Gunzel said. “Not only did he adapt to each student’s learning style, but he accepted each of us for who we are. After taking his courses, I cannot help but realize how much he made me grow in confidence, curiosity, and independence.”
Many other students, including Amy Fiorellino, have expressed gratitude for Geller’s committed and warm teaching presence. “Dr. Geller made it apparent from the start that he was passionate not only about the subject material, but also about the welfare of his students,” Fiorellino said. “The effort and enthusiasm he brought to every lecture and lab was contagious, and was an absolute highlight during the transition to mostly virtual instruction.”
Another recent student, Kevin Chen, highlighted Geller’s dedication to quality teaching through the shift to virtual learning in response to the pandemic. “Even after we went online, he never settled for anything less and made sure that every virtual lecture was as good as a lecture he would have given in person,” Chen remarked.
Among Geller’s most memorable teaching experiences has been seeing students flourish and mature throughout a close student-teacher working alliance. “I once worked with a transfer student who told me that they had never had a teacher make them think through an answer like I had in office hours—teachers had always just given them the answer,” Geller recalled. “By the end of the semester, they told me that they had used their brain in ways that they didn’t know was possible for them, which was very touching and meaningful to me.”
Geller’s advice to new college teachers is to embrace the whole learner and make space for every kind of student to show up authentically in class. “Don’t take things too personally,” Geller said. “While we should strive to reach everyone, not every student will respond well to the teaching style that you worked so hard on. Or they will, but might not love the subject that you love. Or they’ll enjoy you and your class, but still have different priorities. While it’s good to self-reflect, don’t be too hard on yourself, or the students, because of some differences that can’t be helped.”