Balster and Vander Zanden named winners of Distinguished Teaching Awards

March 12, 2012

Ten University of Wisconsin faculty members have been chosen to receive Distinguished Teaching Awards, including Nelson Institute affiliates Nicholas Balster and M. Jake Vander Zanden.

Nicholas J. Balster, associate professor of soil science, Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Chancellor's Award

Nicholas Balster

Nicholas Balster said that, of all his roles, he holds his role as a teacher as most important.

"My philosophy focuses on constructing a learning environment that melds teaching and learning in an authentic form such that students and I are led by the wonderfully complex pursuit of understanding," said Balster.

"I believe a teacher must provide a clear level of expectation within a learner-centered environment that provides every student with some measure of achievement. Teaching should be conducted in a manner where no one is belittled for their lack of understanding," he added.

Balster joined the soil science faculty as an assistant professor in 2003, has been an associate professor since 2010 and chairs the new environmental science major.

"He has made extraordinary contributions to the teaching mission of our institution at nearly every level imaginable," said William Bland, soil science chair.

Bland noted that Balster took a low-profile course, "Soils: Ecosystem and Resource," and made it a premier contribution to environmental science learning. He said Balster's students have had their view of the natural world transformed by the course.

Balster is credited with injecting vibrancy and new thinking into undergraduate courses. He has also worked to bring to campus undergraduate majors addressing the environment, resulting in both an environmental studies major, jointly offered by the Nelson Institute and the College of Letters and Science, and an environmental sciences major jointly offered by the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Letters and Science.

Balster served as co-chair of the UW Teaching Academy in 2010-11 and led the Teaching Academy Summer Institute in 2009.

John Swain, a former student of Balster's and now an earth science teacher, said he found himself taking two sets of notes in Balster's classes, one for the content and one set of mental notes on Balster's approach to his craft as an educator.

"Dr. Balster has related to me that his favorite part of his job is watching the lights go on as a student discovers and learns," Swain said.

Clayton Thomas, another of Balster's students, describes him as "a shining example of what faculty advising and undergraduate instruction should look like."

M. Jake Vander Zanden, professor, Center for Limnology and Department of Zoology, Chancellor's Award

Jake Vander Zanden
Vander Zanden

Jake Vander Zanden knows that engagement of students in the research process is a remarkable learning opportunity, affording them the chance to truly understand scientific exploration.

"There are two things that I hold as core to my teaching approach," he said. "The first is to create opportunities for students to engage directly in the research process. The second is to expand the realm of teaching and learning beyond the classroom. Field trips are central to the learning experience in all of my classes."

Vander Zanden, an international leader in the field of limnology and freshwater sciences, began his teaching career at UW-Madison in 2001.

"Jake's track record of student mentoring is perhaps the most striking indication of his contributions to education," said Jeff Hardin, zoology department chair. "Jake personifies the Wisconsin idea and is a model for the integration of teaching and research."

In his years on campus, Vander Zanden has overseen 50 undergraduates in directed studies projects and many of his students have gone on to top graduate programs in freshwater sciences.

He teaches Limnology: Conservation of Aquatic Resources, and Ecology of Fishes.

Vander Zanden insists that students taking his Conservation of Aquatic Resources course get hands-on sampling on Lake Mendota " a testament to his commitment to field-based learning and instruction.

In 2009 his students made a remarkable discovery -- that Lake Mendota had been invaded by a new and unexpected invasive species known as the spiny water flea.

Vander Zanden's lecture style is energetic, personable and accessible. He is committed to actively engaging his students in the learning process despite the large lecture format of his classes.

A word that often appears in student evaluations of his teaching is "enthusiasm."

One student wrote, "Your reputation as a great scientist is mirrored in your ability as a teacher." Another noted that Vander Zanden obviously loves what he does. He was named an Aldo Leopold Leadership Program Fellow last year.

Vander Zanden's research is well integrated with his teaching and mentorship programs.

"As a result, some of the most significant papers from his lab are led by students," wrote Hardin. "This generosity of lead-authorship is a hallmark of his program."

View a full list of this year's recipients.