Biology professor earns national award

By Jim DeLa

Emily Saarinen
Emily Saarinen

A national science educators organization has named a New College faculty member 2019’s Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher.

Emily Saarinen ’97, a New College alumna and associate professor of biology and environmental studies, learned she had won the award while checking email recently. “I saw a subject line: ‘2019 OUSTA Award Winner!'” she said. “I remember thinking ‘I think that means me!”

The Soci­ety for Col­lege Sci­ence Teach­ers, an affil­i­ate of the National Science Teachers Association, bestows the yearly award to recognize “the achievements of our teaching colleagues that have enhanced the profession as outstanding teachers of science. This annual award is based upon a selection process that evaluates nominees according to the following ranked categories: 1) teaching excellence; 2) scholarship; 3) service.”

Professor Katie Walstrom, chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at New College, says she nominated Saarinen for the award “because she’s awesome.” In her nomination letter, Walstrom wrote, “I have read thousands of instructor evaluations and can confidently say that the students’ passions aroused by Prof. Saarinen for biology, ecology, and research are rare.”

Saarinen teaches several courses, including Ecology, Conservation Biology, Entomology, Principles of Ecological Management, and Introduction to Environmental Studies. She regularly supports Pollination Ecology tutorials and clubs in addition to her work with the Sarasota Honey Company and the New College bee hives located on the Caples campus.

A student in Ecology in the Fall 2016 semester wrote of Saarinen, “She is conscientious of all learning backgrounds catering to those who have/haven’t had ecology experience.” After the Fall 2015 semester, an entomology student wrote, “I’m not a science major, but I felt welcome and like I belonged.” Another student in this class wrote, “She made the material easily accessible for those without any previous science knowledge. She balanced between hard work and making it easy to succeed with her availability and helpfulness … This class was the greatest surprise.”

Saarinen says she approaches teaching the same way she approaches research. “I’m motivated by data,” she said. She admits she teaches tough classes, but it’s nothing New College students can’t handle. “My classes are very structured. Students know what’s expected at all times.”

“She makes students feel really comfortable, no matter what their backgrounds in science are,” Walstrom said. “She teaches complicated material, but she knows how to sequence the material so students can understand it.”

After reading the description of what the Society was looking for in an award winner, Walstrom said she knew Saarinen would fulfill every expectation. “I thought, ‘She could win this!’ I’m so excited.”

Saarinen says her New College students are passionate and civic minded. “They tend to be solution-focused. My classes are designed to be rigorous, to give them the skills to be really impactful. They’re up to the challenge.”

It’s rigorous, but Saarinen encourages creativity because, as she puts it, “It’s more fun that way.”

The award comes with a plaque, a $1,500 check, and an invitation in April to the society’s national conference in St. Louis, where she’ll be a featured speaker.

Saarinen expects she’ll talk about the challenges teachers face, particularly as the use of technology in the classroom increases. “How do we need to modify our techniques as the generations change? How do we adapt?

“We need to teach science as we do science,” she observed. “I want to share my enthusiasm, to encourage persistence,” and to not be afraid of failure. “Nobody’s perfect. That’s boring, anyway.”

– Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.

Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 700 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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