Alumnus Earns Outstanding Teacher Award
Monday, June 29, 2009
Lee Finds Career in Classroom
Lori McGinnis, IANR News Service
It didn’t take long for Don Lee to realize while growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., that he wanted to be a teacher.
“I probably knew pretty early I wanted to be a scientist,” he said. “I discovered as I went through school that when I learned something new I got excited about trying to explain it to somebody else. I think that’s a good sign you should be a teacher.”
Lee was wise to follow his young instincts. He is one of this year’s recipients of the Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award.
Lee, professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, teaches entry-level genetics, biotechnology and plant science.
These are areas, Lee said, that are critical to Nebraska’s environment and agricultural sector. He is grateful for the opportunities to work with colleagues who make discoveries that impact the state and the chance to teach those discoveries to students for them to use in their future professions.
He attributes his interest in genetics to high school biology teachers who helped him learn how to connect what he was learning in class to the real world. At Augustana College in Sioux Falls, he found that genetics was the most interesting part of biology for him.
Lee set out to discover how he could be a scientist in genetics, and plant science was a perfect fit, so he focused his graduate studies on that. He got his master’s degree in plant science in 1985 from South Dakota State University and his doctorate from Montana State University in agronomy in 1988.
He said he started his UNL career 20 years ago, “when I didn’t have any gray hair.” He also didn’t have much access to technology. The biggest change in the last two decades, he said, has been the development of technology that helps students envision the appearance of molecules and cells, he said.
“Before that you had to rely on pictures and chalk boards,” he said. “I’m not a very good artist so everything I drew looked the same. In the last 10 years it’s been amazing what kinds of resources a science teacher has to make their teaching more effective.”
Lee’s use of computerized Flash animation in his teaching was cited by his nominators as evidence of his creativity.
“Don is probably the most creative instructor in our department,” said Stephen Mason, agronomy and horticulture professor and co-nominator with fellow department professor Dennis McCallister. Lee is able to use that creativity with different audiences – his in-class and distance students and UNL extension audiences, Mason said.
Lee said his use of animation is important because the majority of his students are visual learners. Seeing an animated corn stalk on their computer monitors helps the students visualize how words like molecules and cells connect with real objects, he said.
Lee is about much more technology, however. He firmly believes a “hands-on” approach to teaching is the most important way for students to learn. Even so, he has led efforts to advance distance education, which he calls more “brains-on.”
“My philosophy is that my job is to help everybody learn as much as they can in the time that I have with them as a teacher,” Lee said. “Sometimes you have to use different strategies and approaches to teaching to try to give everybody a good chance to learn the importance of the science you are teaching.”
One of Lee’s students, Andrew Schlichtemeier, a sophomore agronomy major, praises Lee for maintaining high energy in class.
“He presents class. He does not lecture,” Schlichtemeier said.
Lee said he appreciates being a part of a major research institution that also recognizes the importance of teaching.
“You need people who are mostly teachers who are part of the team and then you need to recognize how important their contributions are,” Lee said. “They need to have full citizenship in the university and that’s what I’ve experienced here in the last 20 years.”
Pictured above right: HANDS-ON TEACHING – Agronomy and Horticulture professor Don Lee talks to students Laura Vinopal and Sam McInturf about DNA and gel electrophoresis.