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Kay C. Dee - Professor of the Year

January 30, 2003

Mary Ann Travis

mtravis@tulane.edu

State an assumption to a curious scientist, and you can bet she will ask for proof. When Kay C Dee, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, began attending schoolwide faculty meetings six years ago, she heard assertions such as "Everybody knows if you want to get good teaching evaluations, you have to give an easy class," or "Everybody knows that students can't evaluate teaching because they don't know anything about it."

As a new faculty member, these broad statements about education disappointed Dee. She said, "Maybe everybody knows that, but I don't." Dee got busy investigating the learning literature. She began to treat learning as a scholarly activity. She scrutinized teaching-evaluation data. She observed her colleagues teach. She participated in a teaching-training institute. And in the process, Dee became an exemplary teacher.

This year the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching have recognized her as the 2002 Louisiana Professor of the Year. Rich Hart, professor and chair of biomedical engineering, said, "Kay C has my enthusiastic endorsement for the CASE award. She is an outstanding teacher."

Dee also is an outstanding researcher, said Hart. Tulane recruited Dee from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she earned in PhD in 1996. She came to Tulane to start a new sub-discipline--cell and tissue engineering--in the biomedical engineering department. Dee looks at how cells and tissues respond to mechanical and chemical stimuli. Her work can be applied to the creation of products for medical problems such as recovery from surgery and dental implants.

"We have a lot of basic knowledge we need to know first in order to create these products," she said. Dee works with bones, lung cells and ligaments in the body and with different biomaterials such as polymers, metals and adult stem cells. And she has reached out to collaborate with faculty members from several areas. "Her contribution to the department is enormous," said Hart.

Dee has developed new courses, including Brave New World, a study of ethics and scientific thought. Plus, she instituted Teaching Engineering, a now-required course for graduate students. Dee joined with other department faculty members in revising the undergraduate curriculum, which is now used as a model for departments across the nation.

"We, as a team, put our students first," said Dee. "We're willing to put our time and energy into making our department and our courses and curriculum better." In her quest to learn about teaching, Dee ran statistics from teaching-evaluation data, which disproved several of the "everybody knows" comments she'd heard when she first came to Tulane. For one thing, Dee said, at least in engineering, there is "no correlation between the perceived difficulty of a class and overall instructor effectiveness."

Also, students who have spent hundreds of hours in classes probably do know how to judge good teaching. "Teaching is about learning," Dee said. "The professors learn, and the students learn."

Dee has led a study of the learning styles of biomedical engineering students, published in the November Annals of Biomedical Engineering. She compared the learning styles of Tulane biomedical engineering students with previously reported learning styles of engineering students across the country. She discovered that Tulane students' learning styles are significantly different from other students. Rather than being sequential, step-by-step learners as are most engineering students, more than 50 percent of Tulane engineering students are global, creative learners.

"Our students need and want to see a whole picture before they start solving problems," Dee said. How does Dee explain the creativity of Tulane's engineers? "I don't know," she said. "New Orleans? Tulane? There's something special going on here."

Dee and her colleagues are trying to figure out why they got the results they did. "It's research," she said. "You ask a question, you get an answer. Now you have more questions." Dee best likes students who are willing to "try stuff." "I ask them to interact with other people," she said. "I ask them to think about things that maybe they've never thought about before."

Her teaching does not detract from rigorous research. "I think if you do them right, it's all the same. It's all scholarship."

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at mtravis@tulane.edu.

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