She has a good reason.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison associate professor of soil science has just been named U.S. Professor of the Year, and she’s headed to Washington, D.C., to be honored on the national stage.
The U.S. Professors of the Year program is sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Started in 1981, it is the only national program that recognizes excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.
Just four professors are selected nationally each year, one each from doctoral, masters, and baccalaureate degree-granting institutions and community colleges. Balser is this year’s winner in the “doctoral and research universities” category.
“This is a huge honor, and I still sometimes feel like it is happening to somebody else. But I’m absolutely thrilled,” Balser says.
She is being honored today (Nov. 18) at a luncheon and ceremony in Washington, D.C. One of her former UW-Madison students is also in attendance to introduce Balser at the awards ceremony.
The four winners were selected by a panel of educators from faculty members nominated by colleges and universities throughout the country, based on four main criteria: impact on and involvement with undergraduates; a scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the school, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former students.
In addition to her faculty position in the UW-Madison Department of Soil Science, Balser is director of the Institute for Cross-college Biology and a member of the UW-Madison Teaching Academy. She has received numerous other teaching awards and recognitions, including the 2009 USDA and Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Excellence in College and University Teaching Award.
She is a popular instructor on campus and is also well known among her colleagues for her work promoting active learning and the use of technology in the classroom. She uses a variety of techniques, including group discussions, guest lectures and hands-on projects, to engage students in what they are learning. She also puts herself in the role of the learner, constantly soliciting feedback to see what does and doesn’t work for different students.
“A lot of what I do is about creating an optimal learning environment,” Balser says. “I have learned that I can have an important impact on undergraduate learning without necessarily just standing up in front of the classroom talking at them.”
She teaches a range of courses, from an introductory environmental studies class for non-science majors to specialized graduate seminars to a large overview class that introduces new students to the discipline of biology as it is actively practiced at UW-Madison.
“I love seeing students ask tough questions and get discussions going, watching them be really creative in their answers and think really deeply about what we’re doing and how it’s useful to them outside class. I want them to learn things that they can use,” she says. “That to me is success, when students leave the classroom and still want to learn more.”