When Aparna Shah saw that the Virginia Tech College of Science was offering grants for faculty to develop innovative teaching methods, the School of Neuroscience faculty member had an inescapable idea.

Shah knew that group work boosts student engagement, helps students build a community within the class, and refines teamwork skills that they’ll need throughout life. She remembered facilitating a science outreach event at Johns Hopkins University in which students worked together in a neuroscience-themed game. She knew gamification — creating educational games with computer interfaces — could make the material more memorable.

Shah decided to apply for an innovative teaching grant, sponsored by the College of Science in collaboration with the Virginia Tech Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

The idea? A virtual escape room for her introductory neuroscience course. Shah will use her grant money to hire six undergraduate students who previously took the course to create the game.

“It’s a great team activity that can be easily adapted to a science-based group assignment,” said Shah, collegiate assistant professor. “We’ll be implementing the game in my introductory neuroscience course toward the end of fall semester.”

The college’s innovative teaching grant program invited instructors, professors of practice, collegiate faculty, tenure-track, and tenured professors to submit proposals for projects that would enhance the learning experience of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in existing courses offered by the college.

“We developed this grant program because the College of Science wants to encourage our teaching faculty to continuously explore creative methods to reach the students of today and tomorrow,” said Michel Pleimling, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the college. “The proposals that we received made it evident that our instructors are constantly thinking of new, more effective ways for students to learn.”

The proposals chosen for funding came from multiple areas of study, including chemistry, geosciences, neuroscience, psychology, statistics, and the college’s Orion living-learning community. The recipients are

  • John Chermak and Neil Johnson, Department of Geosciences, develop a new method to teach mineral identification
  • Neil McAlpine, Department of Chemistry, create a new organic synthesis and techniques laboratory class that implements green chemistry
  • Sierra Merkes and Anne Driscoll, Department of Statistics, develop a course that uses real-world data in group projects that teaches statistical methods of regression analysis
  • Robin Panneton, Department of Psychology, transform introductory psychology to a dynamic online format
  • Temperance Rowell, dean's office, develop a group research project manual for the Orion living- learning community
  • Tim Saarinen, Department of Chemistry, utilize asynchronous on-line badging for grammar instruction and assessment in a chemistry literature survey class
  • Aparna Shah, School of Neuroscience, use peer assessment software in writing-intensive neuroscience senior seminar courses and create a neuroscience virtual escape room to enhance learning
  • Chixia Tian, Academy of Integrated Science, integrate state-of-art interdisciplinary research into undergraduate teaching and research experience

The Instructional Grant Program provides funds to faculty members to implement their ideas and assess their effectiveness. The program's broad scope is designed to allow colleagues to develop and test novel ideas or implement activities that have been successful elsewhere. Collegiate faculty and instructors are strongly encouraged to submit their innovative instructional ideas to the program.

"We hope that this grant program will help to enhance learning for our undergraduate and graduate students and promote innovation in teaching across the College of Science," said Kevin Pitts, dean of the College of Science. “The program is a valuable opportunity for faculty members to not only explore new teaching methods and technologies but also to share their findings with the wider academic community.”

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