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  • 03/06/17

    Professor Driessen honored for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education

Professor Michelle Driessen has received a 2016-17 Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education.

As director of the Department of Chemistry’s general chemistry program, Driessen oversees more than 5,500 enrollments per year, representing about 30 percent of all the students at the University of Minnesota. During her time as director, she has made significant large-scale changes, some involving a complete overhaul of how the courses are taught.

Professor Michelle Driessen
Professor Michelle Driessen leads our innovative general chemistry classroom and laboratory teaching initiatives. Photo credit: University of Minnesota.

For example, in 2009, she developed an online course for more than 1,000 students who take introductory chemistry each fall semester. She developed the infrastructure for this course from scratch. At the same time, she combined her experience and large body of academic research on chemical education into a co-authored textbook and accompanying digital materials that was published earlier this year.

In the summer of 2011, Driessen changed the way general chemistry laboratories are taught. Instead of using step-by-step laboratory manuals, small teams of up to four students work together on the chemical problems that they must solve and questions that they must answer. They must develop their own plans for investigation, optimize them, and demonstrate that they have addressed the original problems. This problem-based approach places new responsibilities on teaching assistants, and Driessen has developed an extensive training program for the 60+ teaching assistants she manages every semester.

Professor Michelle Driessen teaches her hybrid online course.
Photo credit: University of MInnesota

Shortly after implementing the new laboratory curriculum, Driessen completely reorganized her general chemistry I lectures from the standard format to active learning. She developed a large library of short topical lecture videos and weekly problem-solving activities covering the most difficult concepts. The course was successfully implemented in the fall of 2012. The student response was so positive that she developed an active learning section of general chemistry II the following year, and continues to teach both of them each year. 

Driessen uses these courses as a research platform. She has been able to comparatively study the effectiveness of the different approaches to instruction, and how those impact success for women and economically disadvantaged groups. She has also been actively investigating and developing more quantitative measures of student learning that are needed across the curriculum.

Using her chemical education knowledge, she helped with the creation of a new Chemistry for Life Sciences curriculum that was launched this fall to better serve the chemistry needs of students in the College of Biological Sciences.

In addition to her regular teaching duties, Driessen works with students in the department’s directed studies course; mentors students who want to teach high school chemistry; works closely with members of the University’s Center for Educational Innovation; participates in Educational Innovation grant projects aimed at improving students' problem-solving skills; spends hours each week meeting with students; helps hire the department’s temporary faculty; serves as faculty adviser to the Society of Women Engineers; and participates in the President’s Distinguished Faculty Mentor Program.

"Michelle's work maintaining a quality experience for thousands of students in introductory chemistry courses every year is extraordinary,” said Professor David Blank, chemistry’s director of Undergraduate Studies. “However, it is her continuous innovation and implementation of new approaches to instruction, content, and evaluation that really makes her work stand out and serve as an example at peer institutions across the country."

Driessen earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Minnesota State University-Mankato, and her doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Iowa. She is co-author of “Introductory Chemistry: An Atoms First Approach,” published in 2017.

Driessen will become a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers and will have conferred upon her the title Distinguished University Professor. She will receive a financial award, which reflects the university's strong and enduring commitment to quality undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Minnesota. An award ceremony is planned for Thursday, April 27. She will also appear before the Board of Regents in May.

“Michelle’s innovative approach to teaching general chemistry reflects her deep concern for student learning,” said Professor William Tolman, Chemistry Department chair. “We are very proud of her accomplishments and the recognition conferred by her being chosen to receive this well-deserved award.”

Each year since 1965, the University of Minnesota has recognized a select group of faculty members with the Morse Alumni Award. Since 1990, 15 faculty members from the Department of Chemistry have received this honor, including current faculty members David Blank, Christopher Cramer, Mark Distefano, Thomas Hoye, Doreen Leopold, Kenneth Leopold, Kent Mann, Lee Penn, and Jane Wissinger.