Carnegie Mellon University
April 25, 2017

MCS Faculty and Staff Win Teaching Innovation Awards

Three projects led by Mellon College of Science faculty and staff have received 2017 Teaching Innovation Awards. The faculty and staff members will be recognized at Carnegie Mellon's annual Celebration of Education, which will take place at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, April 27, in Rangos 1 and 2, Cohon University Center. 

D.J Brasier, assistant teaching professor, Department of Biological Sciences and Maggie Braun, associate dean for undergraduate affairs, MCS and associate teaching professor, Department of Biological Sciences, received the award for their project: “Small-group discussions substantially increase the value of a primary-literature module in a large introductory biology course,” which began as a convergence of two projects. Brasier’s Wimmer Faculty Fellowship was focused on investigating how best to teach students from primary scientific literature in introductory biology. Braun was awarded a Simon Initiative ProSEED grant to expand active learning in the core biology curriculum.

Brasier and Braun are working to publish their results to encourage colleagues at CMU and around the world to use small-scale discussions to help students with challenging material traditionally taught in larger courses.

Their primary innovation was to rework an existing module designed for upper-division developmental biology courses to maximize its effectiveness in a large, heterogeneous introductory biology course, Modern Biology. They discovered that peer instruction at a critically challenging point in the module significantly increased student performance on assessments.

Additionally, they discovered that student success dramatically improved when a challenging point in the sequence of lectures was identified and replaced with small-group discussions. The duo believes that this approach can be adopted broadly in a wide range of courses.

The MCS First-Year Seminar Committee, which includes William Alba, director, Science and Humanities Scholars Program; Maggie Braun; Amy Burkert, vice provost for education, Carnegie Mellon University; Heather Dwyer, former teaching consultant, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation; Eric W. Grotzinger, professor emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences; Kunal Ghosh, assistant head for undergraduate affairs, Department of Physics; John Hannon, associate dean of student affairs, Carnegie Mellon University; Jon Minden, professor, Department of Biological Sciences; Veronica Peet, senior academic advisor, MCS; Karen Stump, teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies and laboratories, Department of Chemistry; Russell Walker, teaching professor, Department of Mathematical Sciences; Emily Weiss, teaching consultant, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, is being recognized for developing the Eureaka! seminar course.

The MCS First-Year Seminar Committee worked for several years to create the course that has been required of incoming MCS students since 2015, easing their transition from high school to college, supporting the new MCS Core Education, and laying the foundation for the remaining MCS core education requirements.

Focusing on the habits of successful scientists and mathematicians, the course provides a unique opportunity to influence student development and the overall undergraduate experience of all MCS students.

“This distinctive course has transformed the first-year experience in MCS and has led to significant impacts in and out of the classroom,” said MCS Associate Dean Maggie Braun in her nomination letter. “It also provides practice in building communication and teamwork skills that will be important at CMU and beyond.”

Braun said the curriculum allows students to interact with faculty, alumni and their peers throughout the semester and, importantly, get to know themselves better through numerous reflective exercises.

David Yaron, professor, Department of Chemistry, has a reputation for excellence in teaching, innovation and collaboration. On behalf of the Department of Chemistry, he was nominated for the Teaching Innovation Award by Rea Freeland, associate department head, who stated that Yaron’s work “fundamentally improves introductory college chemistry by providing innovative online learning activities that shift emphasis from mathematical procedures connecting chemical concepts to real-world applications.”

He focuses on computational chemistry and education research. In his computational work, he uses electronic structure theory to model the photophysical properties of organic materials. This includes the effects of disorder and dielectric screening on properties of relevance in light-emitted diodes and photovoltaics. More recently, he is exploring ways to use machine learning to lower the computational cost of electronic structure models.

His innovative ChemCollective project is a digital library supporting community use and authorship of these materials. A central feature of ChemCollective is a virtual laboratory that allows students to design and carry out their own experiments. The collection includes tutorials on difficult concepts and scenario-based learning activities. The materials are used worldwide, with over 900,000 unique visitors in 2016.

Yaron served as director of the Chemistry LearnLab within the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center and has authored chemistry materials for Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. He also co-chaired the College Board committee that redesigned the AP Chemistry course.


By: Marilyn Rossa Kail
Contact: Jocelyn Duffy,, 412-268-9982