Jennifer Russell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor in Sustainable Biomaterials
Excellence in Teaching Award by 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. According to Russell, her approach to teaching attempts to lead with humility and empathy: “First and foremost, students do not have to come to class. I find it valuable to acknowledge and appreciate their attendance, that they complete readings, and that they engage in the discussions. Their participation in the process makes it much more enjoyable and effective for everyone, and it is far more likely that the learning objectives will be accomplished. I think that empathy is also critical. When I go through the syllabus and schedule in the first week, I invite students to share with me if they have major conflicts or overlaps because of exams, field work, or assignments. My goal is not to push them into a state of feeling overwhelmed or burnt-out, and so wherever possible I try to work with students to make the learning process less hectic and stressful. If that means adjusting a deadline, or holding ad-hoc tutorial sessions, or whatever, when possible, it is worth it. I know most faculty try to work this way. Offering understanding, empathy and flexibility makes a big difference for student well-being, and I think it makes me more effective at connecting with them.”
Aida Doldan, a former graduate student and current advisee, said this about Russell: “Dr. Russell is passionate about sustainability and the circular economy, and she transmits this passion and energy in all the classes she teaches. She also genuinely cares about students’ wellbeing and learning, and her authenticity and openness enable students to connect with her very easily and see her as an ally in their learning and success.”
Earl Kline, one of Russell’s colleagues, noticed that Russell is especially passionate about encouraging students to make a positive difference with their newfound knowledge. Kline said, “Jennifer is a great teacher offering students a new way to think holistically about what is a sustainable system. She is passionate about giving students experiential learning opportunities to practice and reinforce this holistic way of thinking and acting. Whether it be in class, in the lab, or out in the field, Jennifer challenges and motivates students to apply their skills confidently so that they can be the innovators of the future.”
When asked to recall her most memorable and meaningful moment as a teacher, Russell said, “In one of my classes I challenge students to think critically about waste, design, planned obsolescence, and sustainability implications by having them disassemble old and/or broken household products. They collect data, complete calculations, ratios and analyses, and develop design interventions that would make the product more repairable and sustainable. Most people never get the chance to intentionally break something (with purpose), and this activity can be incredibly liberating and empowering for students to break something open with a hammer (or specialized screwdrivers) and look inside. It is also a skill that some rarely get to share with their peers. The students are then empowered further to make suggestions about what could be done differently to make the product more sustainable. One of the most meaningful things I can offer students is the chance to realize how much power they have to make good decisions that can make the world a better place. When they voluntarily offer this sentiment back to me in their written project reflections it is incredibly validating and also gives me confidence that the future will be in good hands.”
Russell provided the following advice for new college teachers: “Don't be afraid to share your passion for the work you do; when you bring energy, laughter, dedication, and conviction to the topic, you invite others (the students) to share in that experience. It humanizes the learning process for everyone, and that can go a long way in helping students from diverse experiences, backgrounds, and cultures feel more welcome and engaged.”