Tabitha Buehler, Associate Lecture Professor of Physics and Astronomy, has been recognized for her significant contributions to teaching by receiving a Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of Utah. Only five faculty members are honored each year with the award.
Faculty who are selected must meet several criteria, including a consistent record of outstanding teaching performance; implementing innovative and effective teaching methods that demonstrate exceptional abilities to motivate student learning; a concern for students and their wider education and career preparation; and contributions to the educational process outside of the classroom.
Below is a conversation with Professor Buehler about the award, her approach to teaching, and working with students.
Could you discuss your teaching philosophy and approach to working with students? Has your teaching style changed/evolved?
In my instruction, I try to promote the idea that intelligence and abilities are not fixed—they can be improved over time with work. For example, a student is not inherently “bad at math.” Instead, there are just some math concepts or skills that the student has not mastered yet. Different students may learn in different ways, but I believe that everyone is capable of growth in all areas of study, even in areas in which they don’t feel naturally competent. I explicitly encourage this kind of thinking in my students. Part of the way I do this is by setting clear expectations and holding students accountable for their learning. I present students with challenges that I expect them to struggle with, but I also give them tools and support to help them through these challenges, highlighting their growth and success so that it is evident to them that they are progressing.
I believe it is within my sphere of influence to create a classroom environment that facilitates growth and learning for all students. I work to create a positive learning experience that includes both effective learning activities and a space in which all students feel comfortable asking questions and admitting confusion. I utilize a lot of active and collaborative learning. One of my goals is for students from all backgrounds and perspectives to have their learning needs addressed, and I strive to make sure materials are presented in a respectful way. I appreciate and carefully consider any input and suggestions for improvement from all students.
I have worked through my experiences as an instructor to identify areas where I can improve and to research and independently inform myself of effective teaching methods. My practice has evolved over time as I test different methods and retain the ones that I find most effective. I try to balance the accountability that my students have for their own learning with the responsibility that I have as a learning facilitator.
What does it mean to you to have received this recognition from the U?
It’s such an honor to receive this award. It’s humbling since I personally know so many excellent and dedicated instructors at the university.
What do you enjoy about teaching and working with students?
I love participating in another person’s learning experience. It’s so fun for me to witness those moments when someone makes an exciting discovery, gains a deeper understanding, or “finally gets it.” My goal is to facilitate learning in such a way so that every one of my students has the opportunity to experience at least one of these moments.
I really enjoy getting to know my students, and it’s important to me to learn their names. I primarily teach introductory science courses to non-science majors, and in these classes my students often don’t begin a semester believing that the course might apply to their chosen fields or their everyday lives. It’s fun to help them discover how physics is directly applicable in their lives and interests or how it can help them gain proficiencies and tools that are relevant in their fields. It’s my hope that my students carry with them the sense that I care about them and am committed to supporting them in their learning.
You’re also involved in numerous public outreach activities.
I supervise student Teaching Assistants (TAs) who work as science communicators in the South Physics Observatory public outreach group. The group, led by Paul Ricketts, holds free public star parties on Wednesday nights; gives presentations to groups who come to campus; and takes telescopes and presentations off campus to schools, workshops, scout groups, and other community groups. I support the TAs as they practice communication skills and develop content and activities. I also personally give several outreach presentations on physics and astronomy topics at schools, workshops, and community gatherings each year.
Could you discuss your work with CSME?
I am a Faculty Associate with the Center for Science and Mathematics Education (CSME), and I served as a Faculty Fellow in the CSME’s UPSTEM (Utah Pathways to STEM) Initiative in 2018-2019, helping to build inclusive curricula in the College of Science and improved degree pathways for transfer students to the University of Utah from Salt Lake Community College.
I have been heavily involved in the Learning Assistant (LA) program that the CSME has deployed in the College of Science: https://csme.utah.edu/la/
LAs are undergraduates who receive pedagogical training to facilitate active learning and support instructors in building collaborative classroom environments, with the goal of increasing effective learning. I am the LA Coordinator for the Physics and Astronomy Department and have worked to increase the involvement of the department in this program. I reach out to fellow instructors, encouraging them to use LAs in their courses and offer support and resources for them to do so. I have helped to recruit and place LAs in well-matched courses, and I act as a resource for the LAs who are working in the instructional teams in our department. I also teach the pedagogy course (SCI 5050) for the CSME’s program that provides the training for the LAs. In the course, I introduce the LAs to research-based teaching strategies that have been shown to lead to long-term learning. I support them in effectively applying these practices in their various instructional teams throughout the College of Science and also help them to build a foundation for their own lifelong learning.
Where did you receive your education? When did you join the U?
I completed a Ph.D. in Physics and Astronomy at Brigham Young University fall 2011, and I began as an Assistant Lecture Professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Utah in spring 2012.