By Craig McIntosh
Mark Spaller, associate professor of chemistry and winner of the 2020 DKU Teaching Award
Mark Spaller, associate professor of chemistry, has received this year’s Duke Kunshan Teaching Award after earning praise from undergraduate students for his dedication and stimulating class instruction.
In feedback to the award committee, students also highlighted Spaller’s efforts in quickly adapting his organic chemistry and biochemistry courses when the university switched to online classes in February in response to Covid-19.
“One of the main reasons I moved to DKU was to engage in its unique educational mission, so to be honored with this teaching award is very gratifying,” he said. “Receiving this is especially meaningful considering the breadth and depth of the faculty talent pool.”
Spaller joined DKU in 2019 after previously holding faculty positions at Wayne State University, Brown University and Dartmouth College. He has a Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of Texas, Austin.
Jicheng You ’22 described Spaller’s chemistry courses as “the most stimulating, interesting and lively I have ever taken,” adding that the professor inspires his students to avoid timewasting, to respect others and to develop self-confidence.
Spaller said his aim is to make the course material as relevant as possible, not only to provide a foundation for future classes and postgraduate programs but also to show how the subject matter connects to students’ everyday lives.
“Knowledge that helps students make better sense of the world around them is knowledge that tends to stick,” he said. “For example, in chemistry and biochemistry, learning the properties of molecules is fundamental knowledge; but seeing how molecules manifest themselves in medicine, food and myriad commercial products, that makes knowledge tangible.
“In practice, this means having students engage with different source materials — textbooks, current news articles, videos, computer simulation software — so they can make those crucial connections that link theories and facts to personal and social realities.”
When the campus closed partway into the spring semester due to the Covid-19 emergency, faculty spent three weeks working with Duke Learning Innovation and the Center for Teaching and Learning to redesign their courses for online delivery.
May Thongthum ’22, who took classes with Spaller in sessions three and four this spring, said she was impressed by how the professor adjusted the syllabus, handled any problems quickly, and took the opportunity to introduce students to new molecular visualization software.
“He’s very compassionate, open-minded and understanding to students with different situations,” she said. “I can see his passion in teaching and devotion to duty. I think he really deserves this award.”
Spaller said that despite the disruption caused by Covid-19 to teaching plans, there were upsides to moving instruction online.
“Tactically, it helped me make more productive use of digital platforms and technologies, including a few that I had used pre-pandemic,” he said. “Strategically, and more importantly, online instruction had me revisit and rethink questions about the best ways to teach and learn, and to use this as a time to consolidate the practices I want to bring into my future courses.
“To quote the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, ‘There is no education like adversity,’” he added.