We are here! We are here!

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Every year I lose track of the number of recommendations I write. Now you may express dismay at learning that some people actually want my opinions, but there it is. A bigger tragedy to me is that so many of my words get read by so few… letter after letter scanned briefly by some selection committee, then discarded, never to be seen by anyone again. My mind turns reflexively from the ugliness of this corner of reality….

Today I’m breaking with this tradition to publish a recommendation I penned just this weekend. It serves the double purpose of carrying my words out into the ether, where anybody may read them for all eternity (or at least until the internet apocalypse), and to promote the work of a dear friend and excellent colleague, Dr. Simone Aloisio, whom I nominate for my campus’ President’s Award for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. You may dispute my interpretation, but too bad; it’s my letter to write and I say to you doubters, lay on, Macduff…

I guess, if you want this post to mean something more broad than just (just!) Simone’s praises, then you can read between the lines to see how I think the core values of teaching might be construed. We teachers constantly give of ourselves, sowing our seeds and hoping that it’s not all rocky, thorny places. Giving is painful, and the returns are often meager. But we keep doing it. This is a version of how we do it; the why might be mere neurosis.

To the selection committee,

It is my great pleasure to nominate Dr. Simone Aloisio for this year’s President’s Award. I have worked alongside Dr. Aloisio for over a decade, and have seen up close how his work affects students’ lives. I can say unequivocally that his presence has radically altered the landscape of our University community, providing a set of pathways for students to find their way to a life of the mind through the pursuit of science. Shaping one’s own life’s work, one’s scholarship, into transformative and translational experiences for students is one of the defining characteristics of CI’s faculty; my nomination recognizes that Dr. Aliosio is an exemplar of that tradition, and indeed one of its key architects. From course design, to student travel opportunities, to inclusion of undergraduates in basic research, Dr. Aloisio has spent the last 13 years shaping meaningful experiences for our students.

As a climate scientist, Dr. Aloisio is organically connected to the notion and practice of sustainable living. He made sure this vision lay at the very root of CI’s curriculum through the courses he designed when he landed here. One such, his general education course Chemistry and the Environment, was actually prescient. It delivers incoming students the tools they need to critically analyze arguments of deep social importance; in the years since he introduced that class, such ‘scientific critical thinking’ courses have become de rigeur across the CSU, as campuses realize the power the scientific method has in case study dissection. But the course Dr. Aloisio created teaches so much more broadly, challenging students to propose and implement ideas for addressing sustainability on their home turf. Giving students an outlet for creating tangible, actual, on-campus solutions empowers them in a way that no stand-up-lecture course ever can. If students are to realize their full potential, they must have experiences like these, opportunities to see the change they are capable of. By making our campus a laboratory in which students live, act, and interact, CHEM 101 turns abstract global problems into hyperlocal, realizable goals. The fact that ‘living laboratory’ is on so many tongues on our campus today is a testament to the power of the idea Dr. Aloisio introduced.

Of course, Dr. Aloisio was also the founding instructor of UNIV 392, the travel course that is arguably the keystone of the CI curriculum. Since 2006, he has taken students to Japan 5 times, and will take a 6th group next year. Dr. Aloisio knows that, for his trip, many students will obtain a passport for the first time, board a plane for the first time, leave home for the first time. Quite apart from his stated educational objectives, Dr. Aloisio’s 392 course broadens and deepens his students’ outlook, almost as the spoonful of sugar that eases harder lessons: fundamentals of climate science, yes, but also more complex social lessons. Whether touring the Hiroshima memorial or working with villagers rebuilding oyster farms in the aftermath of the Tōhuku tsunami, Dr. Aloisio’s students learn to process how humans interact with their environment. His message of science’s power to inform our lives and choices is such a fundamental one that he easily finds its expression in his groundbreaking international travel experience, and it’s a vehicle many of his colleagues have sought to emulate.

As important as the classroom and the real world are as teaching spaces for Dr. Aloisio, he has also been a real innovator in the experiential learning environment that is the CI research laboratory. That project has obviously been a great success; giving students ownership over their own identities as scientists never fails to engage them with their futures. But the real innovation that is Dr. Aloisio’s triumph is to take it upon himself to institutionalize faculty-mentored student research as a core value: each faculty member in Chemistry is given 3 units for teaching their 494 section, upending the CSU’s traditional ‘S-value’ system of partial units. Dr. Aloisio has ensured all our tenure-track faculty, as well as several lecturers, have time to engage our students in the lab. The result is that research is recognized as perhaps the most important piece of Chemistry’s curriculum, by students and faculty alike. That value has begun to reach beyond research activities themselves, so that even instructors that do not run a 494 section still build current research into their materials. That his approach is of obvious value can be seen in just how important faculty mentored student research has become in nearly all CI’s academic programs.

In summary, I point out that my colleague and friend has spent a decade and more innovating in perhaps the most important of ways. His tools might not always include the flashiest new web 2.0 widget, or the social media outlet du jour, but they do form the very heart of CI’s most important values. Those values did not spring from nothing, but from the ceaseless work of faculty such as Dr. Aloisio. He must be recognized for striving to shape student-citizens with the critical analysis tools necessary for filtering out the noise of our culture, for giving students the life experiences they need to contextualize all that happens on campus, and for creating a culture of experiential learning that permeates our campus. As valuable as all those contributions are, however, we must also recognize Dr. Aloisio’s thoughtful and clever shepherding of our campus toward employing the same tools and tricks more broadly. In this way, the whole student body may partake of his spirit, as may my colleagues, my University, my community.

Sincerely,

Blake Gillespie

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