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Martha Sullivan

Martha Sullivan, M.S.

Associate Professor of Practice, and Chair of Industrial Design

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. According to Sullivan, her approach to teaching focuses on integrating her diverse experiences. She explained that “These three components: creative practice, teaching, and outreach, are bound together and focus my approach to working with students and colleagues on wisdom, curiosity, and compassion.”

Sullivan elaborated on her approach by providing specific techniques she has applied in her classes: “The practices I use include meditation or calming of the mind,  as well as creative, generative, and reflective exercises. I also look to help establish healthy habits/rituals of working, maintain an inclusive environment, and promote activism. I employ these techniques in all classes and work relationships; sometimes these practices are implicit, but the most successful experience has been the introduction of a course titled, Mindful Designer.” She also commented on the positive impact of these techniques on her students’ experiences: “Being explicit with the students about their well being and capacity to design their own life helps them in the present moment stress of college, and many have told me later that they utilize these skills long beyond the single course.”  

Chelsey Pon, a former student, described that Sullivan’s “superpower” is “natural empathy toward others, especially her students.” According to Pon, Sullivan “looks at each student as a unique, whole person and understands that their individual well-being comes before anything else.”

Relatedly,  ​​Stephanie Majewski, a current student, described Sullivan as “the most supportive professor” she has ever had: “When any of us are struggling within a project, she always reassures us to not stress because ‘we’ll figure it out together’. You can really tell she wants her students to succeed, and will do as much as she can to help us get there. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”

One of Sullivan’s colleagues, Kathryn Clarke Albright, summarized the various ways in which Sullivan contributes to the department: “I have known Martha for a decade and she stands out among her peers through commitment to students in a spectrum of ways in and out of the classroom whether leading them on study abroad to Ecuador, China or Dubai or challenging them to make bowls in ceramics class for a fundraiser in which participants purchase a bowl of soup to benefit local food banks.”

When asked about her most meaningful experiences as a professor, Sullivan discussed her favorite class titled Empty Bowls. According to Sullivan, students “grow their skills through the design and production of soup bowls” and “donate their work to a ticketed community event to combat food insecurity in our region.” Sullivan reported that “In ten events, we have raised around $55,000 and served over 3,000 people with soup in our handmade bowls.” She believes that the class “is a life changing experience in the most elemental way. The most common feedback from students is their satisfaction at being a part of something bigger than themselves, an act for the greater good.”

Sulivan provided the following advice for new college teachers: “Plan for longevity, just as you would tell students to prepare for a project. Pace yourself, identify assets you have and assets you need. Make a plan for success and give yourself plenty of space to grow too. I learn just as much from my students as they do from me, and I am better for it. Keep a connection to your expertise and your community, you can find help in those places on the days being a teacher is hard. It is a constant practice, no different than design itself, and as such it leads to a path of truly knowing the grand potential of humans in our ever changing ecosystem.”