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Dr. Allen one of three faculty named recipients of Russell Awards

Thursday, April 21, 2011 - 10:24pm

Wesley D. Allen, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry, has won a university-wide Richard B. Russell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching for 2011. Three Russell awards are made each year at the University of Georgia, with each awardee receiving $5,000 from the Richard B. Russell Foundation.The awards were presented at the annual Faculty Recognition Banquet on April 11, and the recipients were also recognized at Honors Day ceremonies on April 13.  A committee of senior faculty members and undergraduate students makes the selections from nominations submitted by the deans of the various colleges.

Large lecture courses in Freshman Chemistry taught by Professor Wesley Allen have received stellar evaluations from the students. Allen’s lectures are full of energy and delivered with the aid of cutting-edge classroom technology such as videos, clicker quizzes, and hand-made models and demonstrations.

As former student John Gaudet put it, “Professor Allen makes it nearly impossible for students to disengage themselves.”

Since 2005, Allen has taught chemistry courses to more than 1,900 undergraduate students—and he’s offered, legitimately, to get to know every one of them. He’s fond of telling students they are “more than 810 numbers.”

And his actions back up that up that claim.

Allen keeps liberal office hours and encourages students to stop by to talk about chemistry, life in general, and/or help build molecular models. Every Monday night he hosts a voluntary two-hour help session, and whenever he meets a student, he jots their name down on an index card so he can remember it later in class.

Allen sometimes augments homework assignments with “challenge problems,” and he buys lunch at the Tate Student Center for the first five correct responders. What’s more, he holds an open invitation to any student daring enough to challenge him in table tennis—although he remains firmly undefeated so far.

But the emphasis on Allen as a pedagogical pioneer and nurturing professor shouldn’t obscure the view of Allen as a full-fledged chemistry enthusiast. He’s an internationally recognized theoretical chemist with more than 100 high-quality research publications, which have accrued over 4300 citations in the scientific literature. And he won the 2009 Creative Research Medal at UGA and was named by the Northeast Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society as Chemist of the Year for Research in 2008-2009.

But what’s truly distinctive about Allen is the passion he brings to both the teaching and research sides of his job.

Stimulated by a series of “Creativity Across the Disciplines” workshops at UGA, Allen has devised and tested novel classroom exercises to teach concepts by using the empathizing tool developed by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein in their book Sparks of Genius. In these interactive skits, Allen asks students to “think like a molecule.”

It’s creative ideas like that that stick with his students years after they’ve left his class.

“He showed me the power of chemistry, but was able to put it in perspective of something I could understand. I remember him saying so often ‘Think like a molecule!’ And this is how he presented all of his material and made the microscopic, unimaginable visible right in front of our eyes,” said Garret Starwn, a former student. “He brought me to a point of certainty in my aspirations and now I’m actually excited about organic chemistry next year. Too bad he isn’t teaching it.”

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