Physics, chemistry professors awarded Certificates of Teaching Excellence in Virginia Tech’s College of Science
Professors in physics and chemistry at Virginia Tech have been recognized with the Dr. Carroll B. Shannon Excellence in Teaching Award.
Leo Piilonen, professor of physics and Gordon Yee, associate professor of chemistry, were recognized for their innumerable contributions to teaching and learning. The award, made possible by an endowment established by Peter and Carroll Shannon, is bestowed annually to faculty members who demonstrate outstanding teaching skills and methods, and dedication to learning.
Piilonen is characterized as an exceptional, dedicated, and challenging teacher who is immensely generous with his time and very creative in making complex topics understandable.
“The ability to explain the material well was complimented by his saint-like patience,” one student wrote on a course evaluation. “Regardless of how fundamental a question was, he never dismissed a student’s inquiry as trivial or trite, and he never presented frustration at a student’s struggle to grasp basic concepts.”
Joining the faculty in 1987, Piilonen was a leader in the adoption and creative use of technology for teaching and learning. He was one of the first members of the physics department to utilize the Web for delivery of course-related information to students and faculty. In addition, he led the department in adopting an electronic, online system for assigning and grading problem sets for his classes. He was also a pioneer in using audience response technology to enhance teaching and learning in the classroom.
“It is my personal belief that students are most receptive to learning when they feel that they are more than ciphers,” Piilonen said. “To that end, I have attempted to engage my students directly and personally during our contact hours in lectures, recitations, and office hours.”
Piilonen was chair of the department’s Undergraduate Committee and has overseen the development and approval of several new courses. His students have consistently given him an overall average evaluation score of 3.84 (out a possible 4.0) for graduate level courses and 3.57 for undergraduate courses.
Piilonen is frequently cited for his devotion to his students and is regularly seen long after typical office hours to help students who have questions or may be struggling to grasp a specific concept.
“Leo’s dedication to teaching and mentoring his students is clearly visible on a daily basis and has been for years,” said John Simonetti, associate professor and associate chair of the department. “He puts in the time with his students, whatever time they need, using a steady, calm, personal interaction that gains the respect of all.”
“Professor Piilonen is one of the major reasons why I am pursuing a career in academia today,” said former student Annalisa Pawlosky, who is now earning a Ph.D. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “He was well known to sacrifice his own time, both professional and personal, to help his students.”
Piilonen’s approachability is praised by many who have taken his classes.
“Professor Piilonen’s homework assignments were excruciatingly long and difficult, and his exams were the hardest of any I encountered,” said Brian Skinner, a former student who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the University of Minnesota. “But he was always somehow on the side of his students, even when assigning a 30-hour take-home final.”
Piilonen earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Princeton University.
Yee joined the chemistry department in 2001 and has since become recognized nationwide as an outstanding teacher of chemistry. Along with W. Dean Harman, professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia, Yee developed Thinkwell, an online video textbook on general chemistry that is widely used in high schools and colleges across the country. Thinkwell consists of more than 300 10-minute video segments that encompass all of the topics of a traditional textbook. Over 30,000 copies have been sold, resulting in the development of a Facebook fan club for Yee and personal invitations to visit high school science classes.
“It is incredibly rewarding to know that I have been able to get teenagers turned on to science and have been able to get the message of relevance across,” Yee said.
“Gordon knows that in order to be effective as a teacher, he must present new concepts by connecting them to a student’s existing framework,” Harman said. “He is a master at getting students to see connections before reinforcing them with mathematical formulas.”
Yee’s overall student evaluation scores over the last eight years have averaged 3.5 (on a 4.0 scale). He designed and taught the first semester of a new lecture course in honors general chemistry and designed an accompanying lab course for which he wrote or adapted 20 new experiments.
“Chemistry is everywhere, and demonstrating its usefulness with humor and day-to-day examples is one technique that I use with great success,” Yee said.
Former students praise Yee’s classroom engagement and helpfulness.
“I have witnessed firsthand how much Professor Yee works to constantly improve his teaching, and the effort shows in the quality of his lectures,” said former student David Tatum, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. “He is the only professor I know who literally never closes his door.”
Former student Stephanie Moore said, “I owe much of my confidence and bold attitude toward new adventures to the quote Dr. Yee said to me my freshman year that I still constantly say to myself: ‘the key is being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.’”
Yee has written three articles for the Journal of Chemical Education, served as a teaching mentor to assistant professors in the department, and received the Cook Teaching Award in 2008 and the Alan F. Clifford Faculty Service Award for 2010.
“In my experience, it is rare to find a successful researcher at a top-tier university who also cares so genuinely about the school’s educational mission,” Harman said.
Yee earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University.
The College of Science at Virginia Tech gives students a comprehensive foundation in the scientific method. Outstanding faculty members teach courses and conduct research in biology, chemistry, economics, geosciences, mathematics, physics, psychology, and statistics. The college offers programs in many cutting edge areas, including those in energy and the environment, developmental science across the lifespan, infectious diseases, computational science, and nanoscience. The College of Science is dedicated to fostering a research intensive environment that promotes scientific education and outreach.