One of the greatest challenges professors face is creating class presentations that are exciting and allow students to apply information beyond the scope of the course.
Michel Wattiaux, assistant professor in dairy systems management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has become an expert at this and was recently awarded the UW-Madison Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award for his work.
The university-wide teaching award annually honors six faculty across campus for outstanding instruction.
“This award brings great prestige to the Dairy Science Department and to the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences,” said Ric Grummer, Department of Dairy Science chair. “Only one other instructor in our department has ever received the award, and that was over 35 years ago. This puts him in a unique and elite league of instructors.”
Additionally, Wattiaux is only one of four instructors in the college to receive the award in the last 10 years.
“The award brings honor to the entire college,” said Richard Barrows, associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “It is tribute to Professor Wattiaux’s excellence, which itself is a part of the college’s instructional program.”
Wattiaux was first nominated for the award by Dr. George Shook, professor of animal breeding in the Dairy Science Department. He then submitted an application package to be reviewed by a committee of elite instructors across campus.
“I had to fill out a fairly involved document with 30 pages of student evaluations, colleague letters, and a description of my teaching philosophy.” Wattiaux said.
The teaching philosophy statement helps the instructor characterize what they want to include in their teaching. It includes their goals to accomplish and how to get there.
“Through my application package, it became transparent to faculty how concerned I am with student learning,” Wattiaux said. “In my classes, I try not to lecture because what counts is the students’ learning. My role is to create an environment to facilitate that learning.”
In order to provide a different perspective in the classroom, Wattiaux introduced a series of courses that he says are unique, nontraditional and emphasize hands-on learning.
Among these is a dairy cattle husbandry class that allows students to work directly with large animals to study basic animal health. Students are then taught to use diagnostic tools and disease prevention techniques in dairy cattle of all ages.
“By taking Michel’s class I have further developed my critical thinking skills and my ability to evaluate data,” said Dan Bauer, a senior majoring in Dairy Science. “His class challenged me to think on my own and evaluate real-world dairy management. This has given me more practical experience within the dairy industry that I can some day use in a dairy industry career.”
Another course that Wattiaux teaches each fall semester is the pre-capstone seminar, which is targeted toward sophomores. It is a class that is essentially taught for students, by students to help them think about summer internships.
“Each year I have an undergraduate teaching assistant who finds juniors and seniors to present their previous internship experiences to the class,” Wattiaux explained. “At the end of each semester, students write a final internship proposal to explain their independent learning experience plans for the upcoming year.”
Wattiaux also helped developed a class that focuses on agriculture in emerging economies and dairying in Mexico.
“We spent the fall semester learning about the dairy industry, agriculture economy, and culture in Mexico,” said Kara Kasten, a junior majoring in Dairy Science and Agricultural Journalism.
The course also included a 10-day study tour over winter break to allow students to visit agricultural sites, including dairy farms, processing plants and historical landmarks.
“Michel really focused on our interests and planned the trip around what we wanted to see,” Kasten said. “This helped us get more out of the study tour and made it my most rewarding collegiate learning experience outside of the classroom.”
In order to initiate the Mexico study tour, Wattiaux wrote several grants to receive federal support. Wattiaux’s funding efforts generated more than $100,000, which he also believes helped his application stand out among other applicants for the Distinguished Teaching Award.
In addition to his interactive teaching and funding endeavors, Wattiaux says his third area of focus in his position has been to demonstrate scholarly activities in teaching. He has written scientific papers on teaching that have been published in various pieces of peer-reviewed literature, including the Journal of Dairy Science.
“It was unique to have my colleagues in other institutions reading my paper and saying ”Yes, this is worth publishing,”” Wattiaux said.
Besides the respect he gained from instructors at other universities, his teaching ideas have translated well in the dairy science department at UW-Madison.
“Michel has changed the culture of our department because he has been a missionary in his methodologies,” Grummer said. “He’s been able to convince faculty this is a route they should take, and he has encouraged them to be more conscientious of the way they convey material in class.”
Although Wattiaux’s teaching style is quite different from other professors, many students have responded positively to his interactive teaching methods.
“I thoroughly enjoy Michel’s style of teaching because he makes each student feel comfortable contributing to the class at any time,” Bauer said. “He is completely comfortable adjusting his lesson plans to accomplish the learning goals of the students he works with in each class period to be sure they understand the research presented.”
When he is not teaching, Wattiaux also devotes time to his own research in nutrient management. Currently he is focusing on three major projects.
One study combines milk urea nitrogen data with Ag Source DHI records to evaluate protein feeding. Another project looks into ammonia volatilization from manure collected in free stall barns. Finally, he is working with computer modeling to show nitrogen recycling from animal manure to crop use.
While Wattiaux is very devoted to his research, his primary excitement comes from teaching that scientific information to others and continually finding stimulating ways to do that.
Wattiaux says he will strive to maintain his teaching excellence in the future. His goal is to continue finding ways to empower students to believe in themselves by providing learning experiences that are very meaningful to them.
“What we are looking for in our department are people who are passionate about what they do,” Grummer explained. “Michel has that passion as an educator and works well for the future of our department and students.”