University of Vermont

College of Arts and Sciences

Flips & Clicks Yield Top Teaching Award

Laura Hill Bermingham Earns 2014 Carrigan Plaque

Portrait of Bermingham
Laura Hill Bermingham, a self-proclaimed “science nerd,” says her goal is to make science tangible and exciting and to inspire students to be engaged in science. She’s adept at wielding new technology in huge classes to get students to respond to her and each other.

Sometimes it seems that college professors nowadays practically have to do acrobatics to music in order to gain and hold students’ attention in the classroom.

In fact, Laura Hill Bermingham has resorted to a flipped classroom and clickers.

Just five years after becoming a full-time lecturer at UVM, Bermingham discovered, widely implemented and has become a rather well known champion of what is hailed as the “flipped classroom.”

It’s not what it sounds like. Seriously.

It’s a teaching method that employs technology such as the iClicker and an innovative pedagogical style called “Just-in-Time Teaching.”

Simplified: students spend their homework time preparing for Bermingham’s classes by reading ahead and answering questions. ("a novel idea, right?" she quips) Conversely, they spend their class time with more interactive problem solving. Before class meets, students read and answer questions submitted online, which she checks “just in time” to see what they don’t understand and quickly modify the day’s lecture to cover what students aren’t grasping.

An iClicker is an electronic remote response system in which students answer questions in class with push buttons, and their answers are relayed to a hub operated by the instructor.

Bermingham has become adept at effective “clicker questions,” using the technology creatively so it fosters discussion, sees answers immediately, then has students discuss the questions among themselves and answer again, with better results. As her colleague senior lecturer Catherine Paris says, “Many of us now use them, but in her hands the iClicker is a powerful tool.”

This is one of the reasons Laura Hill Bermingham, of Burlington, a lecturer and research associate of plant biology, was the 2014 recipient of the Joseph E. Carrigan Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching on April 19.

THE BIGGER THE BETTER

While this method isn’t perfect for all courses and all students, introductory courses are the best use of this technology; it leverages how students learn, fosters peer instruction, keeps people focused and really builds a sense of community in large classrooms such as this.

And large introductory classrooms are what Laura Hill Bermingham is all about.

She has taught seven different introductory courses at UVM. She routinely teaches 300 first-year biological science majors and another 200 non-science majors every year.

“That means she could well be one of the best ambassadors for CALS and for UVM science,” remarked Tom Vogelmann, dean of the College in presenting the Carrigan Award to Bermingham.

And she is responsible for giving life-science students in 10 different departments the foundation that they need for the rest of their college years. She has revamped courses, rewritten lab manuals and clearly transformed education.

“I tried new things. Some worked. Some didn’t,” she says modestly. “I took advice from Dave Barrington, chair of the plant biology department to treat (the classroom experience) as if it were a theatrical performance. Good advice.”

She says, “using iClickers to get students to talk to each other – the feedback loop – is important.”

STUDENTS FLIPPED TOO

The classroom isn’t the only thing that’s flipped. She has turned on its ear the concept that huge introductory classes are impersonal, that courses such as genetics are intimidating, and that they’re not fun. And she’s flipped students’ evaluations from ho-hum to incredibly positive.

The media, graduate teaching fellows and faculty members took notice, and Bermingham is often an invited speaker and workshop leader based on her experiences.

Though the flipped classroom is her highest profile accomplishment, it is not all.

MAKE SCIENCE TANGIBLE & EXCITING

After Bermingham earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental biology from Unity College in Maine and her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Vermont, she continued teaching here, first as an adjunct lecturer and researcher.

Her research explores the future of growing rice in cold climates such as Vermont, how humans impact ecological systems and the population ecology of an endangered species. As an advisor and mentor, the lines are long from her office door, because students flock to her for guidance choosing courses, designing their programs, applying to grad. school and launching their careers.

Bermingham says that her goal is “to make science a tangible and exciting topic for students, and to inspire them to continue to learn and be engaged in the process of science.” She adds, “I aspire to build a sense of community in the classroom and an appreciation for complex processes that emerge as we interact with one another in an effort to reach a higher level of understanding.”

One of her former students, Lily Carter, in a letter of recommendation for the Carrigan Award, proclaimed that Bermingham converted her from what she called “a devoted art and language student to a convert of scientific-enthusiasm.” She wrote, “there is such potential in her vision of what teaching can be, fueled by so much creativity and hard work. I am eager to know what she comes up with next.”

But perhaps the secret to her success and popularity isn’t electronic or innovative or clever at all.

She says quietly, “I love biology. I’m a real nerd about it, and I think people pick that up.”

 

The Carrigan Award was one of several awards presented April 19, the College's Honors Day. Marcia Purvis received the Outstanding Staff Award. David Conner took home the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Merit Award. And 86 undergraduates in UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences received 42 awards in their major areas of study and research during the 2 1/2-hour ceremony. Bermingham noted that she had taught at least 20 of those students, though she wouldn't take credit for their high achievements.

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