The Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, in partnership with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, has recognized the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science and the Department of Engineering Education in the College of Engineering with the 2022 University Exemplary Department or Program Award.

The award has been given annually since 1994 to honor excellence in teaching and learning among academic units. The School of Neuroscience and the Department of Engineering Education were selected based on the theme of "creating and sustaining support for early career faculty to develop as effective teachers and/or to contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning."

School of Neuroscience

After its formation in 2016, the School of Neuroscience experienced an astronomical growth spurt, going from zero to nearly 800 undergraduate majors in seven years. The vast majority of its faculty qualify as early career. "I am incredibly impressed with school leadership and their ability to plan, develop, and support a faculty that is almost exclusively at the assistant professor level," said Dean Kevin Pitts of the College of Science.

Among the School of Neuroscience's accomplishments to support early career faculty as teachers are the following:

Creating an Assistant Professor School. To onboard new faculty recruits, Associate Director Sarah Clinton created the Assistant Professor School in 2018 with sessions dedicated to topics such as effective teaching and pedagogy; hiring, recruiting, and mentoring; grant writing; and building a lab. The course was so successful that the College of Science soon adopted the model for all newly recruited faculty college-wide.

Sharing teaching resources. When an integral faculty member unexpectedly died in 2021 a few weeks before the fall semester, the School of Neuroscience scrambled to cover his large Cognitive Neuroscience course. Since then, the school has created an online repository to store and share course materials, including syllabi, course objectives, assignments, and lecture material — a valuable resource for recently recruited faculty crafting new classes.

Applying pedagogical innovations. Neuroscience classrooms often build in fresh approaches such as a flipped-classroom model, process-oriented guided inquiry learning, or interactive online participation tools. Several School of Neuroscience faculty members have received or been nominated for Virginia Tech teaching awards.

Designing spaces for student learning. As part of the renovation of Sandy Hall, the School of Neuroscience created student-centered learning and community spaces with small conference rooms, study spaces, rolling whiteboards, and a graduate student lounge stocked with snacks. The emphasis on student learning has created a vibrant community in the school’s four popular majors.

Department of Engineering Education

For thousands of students in the College of Engineering, the Department of Engineering Education's courses are a standard point of departure. "Excellent teaching is central to our departmental mission," said Senior Instructor Jenny Lo on behalf of the department’s honorifics committee. "We have a strong history in teaching first-year engineering courses, and as the College of Engineering has expanded its enrollments, we have made key adjustments to deliver high-quality teaching at scale."

Engineering Education has gone from teaching primarily first-year engineering courses to teaching courses for the innovation minor, engineering capstone design courses, and graduate courses. With more than a dozen faculty members in the first three years of their careers, the department has had ample opportunity to create and sustain support for their teaching. Some of its achievements include the following:

Evaluating new faculty teaching. The assistant department head for undergraduate programs conducts peer observations of classroom teaching for all new faculty member in their first semesters at Virginia Tech, then provides constructive feedback one on one. Peer evaluations help faculty identify strengths and clarify expectations around teaching.

Mentoring early career faculty. New faculty are paired with more experienced faculty who, in many cases, have taught the same course. They’re invited to sit in on the faculty member’s classes and are placed in nearby offices so the mentor can easily answer questions. In 2021, the Department of Engineering Education piloted a summer mentorship program for visiting and new collegiate faculty specifically because they wanted to ask questions about their teaching responsibilities, even before their official start date.

Creating a collaborative culture of teaching. A shared drive offers early career faculty access to sample Canvas sites, templates for syllabi, rubrics for common assignments, sample assignments, activities, and customized assessment tools that they can use to craft their own courses. There’s also a departmental Slack channel that new faculty often use to ask questions about courses. Such tools underscore the department’s teaching objective of “consistency with autonomy.”

Offering new instructor orientation. The department's first-year coordinator leads an orientation session for new faculty members that covers teaching fundamentals, from high-level pedagogical strategies to activities and resources available in the shared repository. Instructors can also participate in an ongoing monthly colloquium series that covers the latest research on enhancing teaching, with presentations on topics from inclusive classrooms to team management to large classroom instruction.  

Presented annually since 1994, the University Exemplary Department or Program Award was developed as a part of Virginia Tech's Faculty Rewards Project, which sought to define appropriate rewards for faculty members’ accomplishments. The 2022 honorees will be officially recognized at a reception during the spring semester.

The theme for the 2023 award will be "developing and implementing creative solutions to supporting transfer students (into Virginia Tech and/or into new majors)." For more information on the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning  or the University Department or Program Awards, visit the center's website or contact

Share this story