Prof. Tai Wins University Teaching Award

Anne Bromley

Robert H. Tai, associate professor of education at the Curry School, was named the recipient of the Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award. Below is an excerpt from a UVA Today article about the university teaching awards.

The following is an excerpt from a story originally published by UVA Today. Click here to read the full story.

Award-Winning Teachers Share Their Secrets: "Involve Me, and I Learn."

“Involve me, and I learn.” 

Those wise words from Benjamin Franklin are quoted by one of this year’s award-winning teachers at the University of Virginia. These 14 top teachers have developed a variety of ways to involve their students, emphasizing the importance of experiential learning – whether that happens in solving mathematical problems or encountering different cultures.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the usual celebratory All-University Teaching Awards dinner, so staff members in the provost’s office, which sponsors the faculty awards for teaching and for public service, devised another plan. Many of the award recipients found out, at the end of March and the first days of April, through the most common vehicle for conducting courses online: Vice Provost Louis Nelson surprised them by dropping into their class meetings on the Zoom platform. 

“It became pretty obvious that interrupting the Zoom classes with some really positive news and having their students, even virtually, be an audience for the celebration of our faculty and their excellence would be an important initiative,” said Nelson, who had never done something like this before. “In the midst of an incredibly intense series of days, after making decisions around pivoting to online learning, the importance of engaging the humanity of the work that we do rose to the surface.” 

Across the board, the experience was great, Nelson said. The students, with audio on mute, started jumping into the chat screens, sending little messages and using the digital reactions provided in the Zoom app – a thumbs up or hands clapping. The screens were “wonderfully alive with celebration. It was really a delight to see,” he said.

“The clear emotive power, sometimes the silence, or sometimes the very few words from the faculty member afterward, [showed] that we were touching the human need of affirmation in situations of real stress, tension, anxiety and crisis.

“It was really important for the students to see this,” Nelson added. “The students want [to know] the collective experience, the communal experience of the University is still in play. To have the University invade their class was a reminder that the University still exists. You could see that on the students’ faces. 

“They also, of course, just love their professors.”

Alumni Association Distinguished Professor Award

• Robert Tai, Associate Professor, Curry School of Education and Human Development

Since 2001, Tai has taught multiple sections of a required course, “Science in Elementary School,” in addition to research and graduate-student mentorship. He insists that his students learn science concepts through hands-on experience so they’ll be well-equipped to teach science. One activity that has become well-known is his annual NESTA (National Egganautics and Space Transportation Administration) egg launch outside Ruffner Hall. Students in groups of two or three build a rocket-like container for a raw egg and launch it from a 6-foot catapult. The goal is to design something so the egg will land safely without breaking.

“Based on a review of hundreds of existing science curricula, active learning approaches fall into seven categories: 1) collaborating; 2) competing; 3) discovering; 4) creating/making; 5) performing; 6) caretaking; and 7) teaching. The lessons in my course include various combinations of the seven active learning categories.

“Using a short diagnostic survey at the beginning of my course, I gauge my students’ preferences for activities from these seven different categories. … The aim of this survey is not to design lessons to avoid engaging students in activities they do not prefer, but rather to allow me to pay especially close attention to students who have indicated that they do not like to do a particular activity so that I may do more to engage and encourage them in those types of activities. Comparing pre- and post-course survey responses, I often see that many students have shifted in a positive direction regarding their learning activity preferences.”

More on the other 13 award winners can be read on UVA Today.