Feller Favors Peer Learning in the Classroomby Howard W. Hewitt
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Scott Feller is a scientist, college professor, parent, and a bit of a sheep herder.
He also is Wabash College’s McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award Winner for 2009. Feller, who was promoted this year to full professor, has long been an accomplished scientist doing research on the interaction of biochemistry and technology. The recognition for his work with students in the classroom came as a surprise.
"I feel very humbled," he said. "The set of people who’ve won this before me is a group I would aspire towards not a group I think I deserve to join right now."
But students and colleagues put Feller on a level with any of Wabash’s great teachers. During the annual Awards Chapel presentation, Dean of the College Gary Phillips cited comments from students about Feller’s teaching methods.
‘He is very thorough in presenting the material and very good at making difficult concepts clear. In class I would read the book and feel dazed, but when Professor Feller came to class, everything became clear. … He is the reason I became a major. … Summer research work was an incredibly, a great experience.’
Praise also came from one of Feller's colleagues who has team-taught a Freshman Tutorial, Phillips said. ‘I learned a lot, got ideas that I have used since then in other classes… his intellectual interests and abilities were obvious as he asked good questions and helped students develop their ideas and express them. His concern for student learning was obvious.’
Feller cited the team-teaching experience as one of the things that keeps him fresh. "I’m almost always teaching (Chemistry 101) with someone different," Feller said. "(This year with Chem 101 and 111) I was teaching with people I’d never team taught with before. That makes it different because you get to hear the viewpoint of another. We try to work to different people’s strengths and you get the chance to learn something as well.
"If you team-teach those courses it’s harder to just dust off the same syllabus that you had the year before. It’s always a negotiation: ‘how much time are we going to spend on bonding, how much time we going to spend on this or that."
His 11 years at Wabash have allowed him to change the way he teaches and move away from the traditional lecture format. "I made it through last semester without ever giving a lecture," he said of his upper-level Physical Chemistry class. "We did the whole class with peer-led learning. We work our way through a series of harder and harder problems in groups of three or four students. I move around from team to team interjecting an idea or answer any questions. I’ve gone to this inquiry-based learning where students are asked to do a lot of inquiring. You never really know what questions they’re going to ask from day to day."
Students are quick to praise Feller’s work in the classroom and lab but the Professor said success is a 50-50 proposition. "I think there has to be a level of comfort between the students and faculty member," Feller said. "The faculty member has to feel comfortable doing their work and they have to know that they’re in it as a team with the students. Students have to understand we can make a mistake and come back the next day. The students understand that we don’t always all have the perfect answer every time. I’m not someone who can imagine giving a perfect lecture every day. I don’t know what a perfect lecture would look like. Students need to be comfortable and be able to ask questions. That’s one of the things I’ve really liked about Wabash. We somehow have a mixture of a great deal of student respect for faculty yet at same time we have a classroom I would call casual in many ways. That mix for me, I find just right. As a teacher that’s what I really enjoy."
He admits that one of his biggest joys each year is teaching Chemistry 101, or an entry level class.
"We have a lot of students who haven’t had success in science before and they bring some baggage to the study of science," Feller explained. "They think, ‘I’m not good at this. I’ve had this class before and none of my experiments ever worked out. I never did figure that out in high school, Dr. Feller.’
"We have students who come in with that baggage and it’s tough for them to leave that behind. I’m very pleased that our introductory classes are set up for students to be successful. I’m not saying every student is successful, but it’s set up for every student to be successful in ways they haven’t been before with science. They can find out they’re better at this than they thought they were."
And Phillips pointed out at the Chapel Awards program that Feller is better than some people might realize. "At the risk of embarrassing him, I will offer one measure of his regard in scientific circles: the number of annual citations of his publications alone exceeds the sum total of the entire DePauw University science faculty."
Feller is a graduate of Willamette University in Oregon and holds his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Davis. He was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Whitman College before coming to Wabash. He lives with his family on a farm outside of Crawfordsville. Each fall he hosts a cider squeeze and invites friends and family to the farm.
His involvement in the community and Wabash community is another component that makes him a student favorite.
"I’m very much devoted to chemistry, science, and teaching but I have other interests," he said. "My children are now a senior and freshman in high school. We’ve had a lot of activities in the community.
"As much as I see myself as a scientist, I also see myself as something more than that. For our students, I think that’s important too. I think they like to see that we have a whole life. That we have other people around us and other interests – even as crazy as raising sheep!"