Biology professor named Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher

Associate Professor of Biology Kimberly Tanner's research focuses on how people learn science, and she puts her findings into practice through her teaching at SF State. Recognizing her contributions to the field of science teaching, Tanner has been named the 2011-2012 winner of the Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher Award by the Society for College Science Teachers.

photo of Associate Professor of Biology Kimberly Tanner

Associate Professor of Biology Kimberly Tanner

The award, presented to one of nation's top science teachers each academic year, recognizes teaching excellence as well as scholarship and community service. Since joining the faculty in 2004, Tanner has excelled in all three and is the director of SEPAL, the Science Education Partnership and Assessment Laboratory.

"I'm part of a new breed of science faculty with education specialties," Tanner said. "We study how instructors can take students from being a novice to learning to think like a biologist. I also focus on translating our research findings into teaching strategies that make science more accessible to women and people of color."

In addition to conducting research, SEPAL includes science outreach programs and opportunities for SF State students and scientists to collaborate with K-12 educators -- all with the goal of improving the teaching of science.

Tanner was nominated for the award by a former student, and was asked to submit evaluations from other students. They describe her classes as captivating, memorable and "a breath of fresh air," and commented on how Tanner included hands-on activities and took the time to get to know each student and learn all of their names, even in large classes.

Whether teaching biology majors or biology classes aimed at non-majors, Tanner uses interactive methods that allow students to grapple with evidence, ask questions and learn in a way that reflects how researchers practice science in their laboratories. Such approaches mirror the research conducted by Tanner and the thriving community of students, scholars and educators in SEPAL.

Although Tanner was hired by the biology department as a biology education specialist, she takes a humble approach when it comes to sharing her findings with the faculty. "I don't tell anybody how to teach science," Tanner said. "In fact, there is no one correct way. It really looks different in every class."

Tanner says her work involves ongoing conversations with colleagues about how each of them can continually refine their teaching strategies. And having recently taught her largest class yet -- around 300 students -- she admits that she is still on the learning curve herself.

Tanner will accept the Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher Award on March 30, 2012 at the joint national convention of the Society for College Science Teachers and the National Science Teachers Association, being held in Indianapolis.

This award follows Tanner's National Science Foundation CAREER Award, which she received in 2010. In addition, Tanner was recently appointed a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, along with Sarah Cohen, associate professor of biology, who also became a Fellow this fall.

-- Elaine Bible