Professor of the Year

Chemistry professor’s distinctive non-lecture teaching style earns accolades and fans

Written by Caitlin King
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
September 14, 2012

As students settle into their seats, the room fills with energetic chatter on a particularly sunny, spring day. Listen closely. This is not just idle chitchat or water cooler talk. Students are constructing and initiating a lively discussion on topics such as how living cells convert food into energy or where the stages of cellular respiration occur. Heady stuff, indeed.

Chemistry Professor Vicky Minderhout teaches the course but it’s the students who are leading the class. Her students learn by being critical thinkers, rather than being told what and how to think. They grasp concepts through discussion and debate, rather than rote memorization of lines in a textbook.

What also sets Minderhout’s classes apart is the teacher’s teaching method: she doesn’t lecture. At all. Instead, she believes learning happens through collaboration. Unconventional? Maybe. Out of the box? Perhaps. But it’s not entirely new: Socrates used a similar method thousands of years ago. A better question might be whether it’s effective. The answer? Definitely. And now she’s getting national recognition for it.

The effective teaching method, called discovery-based learning, that Minderhout adopted years back and the impact she has on the lives of students factored into her selection as Professor of the Year in Washington state. The national award is given by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

“My ‘ah ha’ moment came as I discovered I had been showing students what I would do as an expert, not taking into account how a student would approach a problem with their more limited knowledge base,” Minderhout explains. “I became a facilitator of learning, in essence a learning coach. Now I try to start where the student is, what they know and can do, then build from there.”

Describing herself as a coach makes sense as Minderhout frames the comparison as such: “No one expects a coach to lecture during practice and then send everyone off to practice on their own. In fact, players practice for hours each week with the coach watching and offering suggestions or improvements, occasionally modeling correct performance followed by more practice. Why is the thinking we expect of students any different? We need to see them practice so we can offer suggestions for improvement before the test is taken or a paper is due.”

At a campus event late last year in Minderhout’s honor, guest Dana Riley Black of the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) spoke of the professor’s impact on science teaching and how her work benefits scholars, colleagues and scientists alike.

“Vicky is a model for how we can effectively rethink STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] teaching and learning at the undergraduate level,” Black said. “We at ISB believe the model Vicky embraces is a model that STEM educators as well as educational administrators from across the country should look to.”

Step into one of Minderhout’s biochemistry classes—often taught alongside Associate Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Loertscher—and it’s easy to see why she is among an elite group of the best faculty-scholars around.

With a friendly and warm disposition and broad smile, Minderhout is at the ready to inspire, to guide, to motivate.
Sitting in groups of three or four, students work through problems until a conclusion is reached, challenging one another until they arrive at an answer.

“As part of a group, students begin to see that others think about problems differently,” she says. “This communication with peers makes thinking ‘visible’ rather than ‘invisible’ as it is in a typical lecture classroom.”

If an entire group is stumped, they consult with the professors—Minderhout or Loertscher, or both—who scan the room and are readily available with a helpful hint or explanation. Not just a yes or no, but relevant, real-life examples to provide clarity. Students—representing a variety of majors and backgrounds beyond chemistry or general sciences—then eagerly take the matter back into their own hands to break down how they reached their final conclusion.

“My classrooms are noisy with students talking, asking question and explaining ideas to each other,” she says. “As they do this, they refine their understanding and integrate these new ideas into their own unique view. I never thought I could love teaching more than I did previously, but this type of [active learning] classroom is really exhilarating.”

Current and former students agree.

“She doesn't let you slack off. It's way more interactive and you have to come prepared or else you feel like you’ve let your group down,” says alumna Karen White, who graduated with a major in cell and molecular biology. “By the time you leave the class you know what you need to know.”

For someone who is known for her innovation and excellence in teaching, becoming a professor wasn’t a given for Minderhout.
“I’d never actually considered being a teacher, but I wanted to do something that helps others,” she says.

Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Minderhout got her undergraduate degree at Kalamazoo College and a doctorate from Northwestern University. She headed west for post-doctoral studies at the University of Washington. When she finished her work at the UW she was offered a part-time job teaching clinical chemistry at SU in 1980.

As the years went by, she grew frustrated, she says, unsure if her students were really taking in the material through traditional lectures. The spark that would change the course of her teaching came in 1997, while at an active-learning workshop. This non-lecture style, a focus of the workshop, was a new way of doing things, of teaching, that she could get behind. After 17 years of lecturing at SU, she threw the lesson plans out, she says, and never looked back.

The rest of the pieces fell into place in 2003, when she joined with Associate Professor Loertscher. Loertscher, who shares a similar passion for active learning environments as Minderhout does, was eager to jump on board.

In 2007, the pair received a grant to co-author an active learning textbook for biochemistry, Foundations of Biochemistry. As part of the grant, the professors were tasked with systematically designing, developing and assessing classroom activities in their lecture-free biochemistry courses. With the book, now available and used at university’s throughout the U.S., professors have a guide to draw from in adapting this style as a new standard of active learning.

If you want further proof Minderhout made the right shift from lectures to active learning, ask former student and alumna Brittany Sullivan.
“All of our schooling careers we have been taught to memorize the material, usually a few nights before a test, and then regurgitate it out and forget about it,” says Sullivan. “Because we figured the answer out ourselves, it helped us to remember and understand the concepts more thoroughly.”

When Minderhout went to Washington, D.C., to accept her teaching award another former student, who made the trek from the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, joined her.

Matthew Ryskalczyk, a 2009 graduate of the College of Science and Engineering, was among those who nominated Minderhout. In his letter to the CASE selection committee, he spoke of Minderhout’s positive influence on his studies in chemistry and biochemistry and her invaluable guidance as his academic adviser.

“The most profound impact Dr. Minderhout has had on me was from the biochemistry group-based learning and interaction course she directed,” wrote Ryskalczyk. “She never failed to encourage me to explore beyond what I know and repeatedly fueled my curiosity for science, especially biochemistry.”

Ryskalczyk added, “Even though I have only scratched the surface of my dental education and the world of dental research, I have been taught the needed skills to succeed.

“My hope is that more professors and students will witness the importance and power of teacher-guided group-based activities that promote student self-discovery, as I have learned from Dr. Minderhout.”

Minderhout is more than a professor—she also advocates for others looking to go the active learning route. She realizes that it is a shift that some educators may be reluctant to make or may face resistance.

“I know from experience that teachers need live examples of what it would look and feel like in order to derive the conviction and confidence necessary to pursue change,” she says. “This is especially true since resistance to change is very often encountered in varying degrees from students, colleagues and administrators who are used to the status quo. … My 30 years of teaching experience, 17 of which were lecture based, affords me a level of credibility that works to my advantage with students, administrators and faculty.”

In 2003, she was sought by the organization Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), a group that focuses on discovery-based learning, to become part of the National Science Foundation-funded steering committee. Today, Minderhout leads workshops on behalf of POGIL for teachers at SU and at universities and colleges in the U.S. More recently she led a workshop in Australia.

Her commitment to education hasn’t gone unnoticed at SU either and her colleagues are some of Minderhout’s biggest supporters.

“Dr. Minderhout truly embodies the mission statement of Seattle University, which calls upon faculty members to provide students with an intellectually challenging education through ‘excellent teaching supported by high-quality scholarship and personalized attention to student learning,’” wrote S&E Dean Michael Quinn and Chemistry Professor and Chair Kristy Skogerboe, in a letter to CASE.

And while the attention that comes with the Professor of the Year honor is “incredibly rewarding,” Minderhout hasn’t surrendered to the limelight quite yet.

Life outside of the classroom is busy for Minderhout, wife of David Thorsell—who retired this June from SU following a nearly 38-year career teaching chemistry—and mom to Devon, who is a student at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, majoring in international affairs with interest in environmental and marine issues.

She starts most days arriving at school—she doesn’t call it “work”—around 7 or 7:30 in the morning. She recalls the early days of teaching at SU, when both she and husband had full schedules that would keep them away from home until the early evening. That meant making the most of the time with each other and with their daughter.

“Our daughter, Devon, learned her multiplication tables in the car during our commute and we listened to a lot of books on tape, including the unabridged Lord of the Rings set,” she recalls. “We had her in private school in Seattle since we figured we would never see her if she was in school in Lake Forest Park [north of Seattle], where we live.”

When free time allows, Minderhout and her husband can be found on the water.

The couple has their own fleet: a boat in Bellingham, Wash., a dingy, a fishing boat, canoe and kayak. One of their sailboats was custom made in New Zealand and the maker sailed his family up from New Zealand to Seattle to sell the boat to David and Vicky in person.

One of Minderhout’s best memories was a trip around Vancouver Island, a voyage she considers a “right of passage” for anyone who sets sail in the Northwest. They circumnavigated the entire voyage without radar.

These days, it’s smooth sailing for the Professor of the Year, whose commitment to her craft continues to inspire and inform bright minds of the future.

“At the end of the day, what we all want for our students is to acquire a love of learning,” Minderhout says, “which will allow them to be productive individuals who can contribute to the wonder of the world around us by making a positive impact on others.”

Seattle University Magazine staff contributed to this story.

Professor of the Year Vicky Minderhout's distinctive non-lecture teaching method has proven to be an effective model for learning.