Alma Robinson, an advanced instructor in the Department of Physics in the College of Science, recently received the Excellence in Teaching First-Year Seminars Award from the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and Penguin Random House Publishing. The award was presented during the 41st Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, held Feb. 12–15 in Orlando, Florida.

The award recognizes instructors who have attained success in teaching first-year seminars for incoming students, including transfers. The award is chosen by the National Advisory Board of the National Resource Center and past recipients of the Excellence in Teaching award.

Robinson takes pride in instructing first-year students, helping them build their problem-solving skills and opening them to the world of possibilities in physics. “At the core of my teaching philosophy is a need to create an inclusive learning environment, where my students feel safe to explore their curiosities and are encouraged to be sense-makers,” she said. “A place where students believe in their own abilities to learn, are motivated to persevere through their struggles, and feel empowered by their successes.”

Instructors of First-Year Experience courses at Virginia Tech support the academic transition of students by introducing them to their discipline/major, faculty, resources, and overall campus life at Virginia Tech. These professors bring value to both the academic and co-curricular aspects of Virginia Tech through collaborative efforts of students and faculty. 

Robinson co-teaches the physics First-Year Experience course with John Simonetti, a professor in the Department of Physics, and they credit their success to the collaborative efforts they’ve made over the years teaching the course together. They help students learn to “think like a physicist” by having them work in teams to solve ill-defined problems with incomplete information. With practice, the students become more comfortable in making and acknowledging their assumptions, breaking down a seemingly intractable problem into smaller ones, and using their creativity to tackle a problem with unique approaches.

“Alma is a truly amazing teacher who helps each student develop, not only as a student but as a person as well,” said Simonetti. “She addresses each student's needs as they navigate the educational experience together. Many say their success in upper-level courses was a result of the foundations they obtained, in physics and in learning, from Alma.”

Robinson is passionate about creating a more diverse culture in STEM and works diligently to create an inclusive environment for all students. In fact, Virginia Tech’s College of Science has recognized the hard work and dedication Robinson has put in and awarded her, along with Meryl Mims from the Department of Biological Sciences, with the first-ever Inclusion and Diversity Fellowship in 2021. This fellowship aims to increase diversity and inclusivity among the faculty, staff, and students in the College of Science. 

Through that fellowship, Robinson spearheaded an initiative titled “Having the Conversation'' in collaboration with current and former students. This project is focused on helping instructors conduct discussions in their First-Year Experience courses on the underrepresentation of traditionally marginalized groups in STEM. “Having The Conversation '' consists of a series of lessons that give students the opportunity to reflect on both their personal experiences and statistics regarding the lack of diversity in STEM fields, specifically regarding race, gender, LGBTQ+ identity, disability, and community type (rural, urban, suburban).

Robinson was previously honored in 2018 with the Certificate of Teaching Excellence from the College of Science, as well as the university’s Alumni Teaching Award for Teaching Excellence.

“Alma always listens to your ideas, works with you to expand or refine them as needed, and makes you feel valued and seen,” said Morgan Atkinson, one of Robinson's former students. “She is a truly great mentor both in and out of the classroom. I loved working with her and she completely deserves this award as she works tirelessly to make her classrooms engaging, supportive, and inclusive for all.”

Written by Bay Sheehan '22, editorial intern for Undergraduate Education

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