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Four Faculty Excellence Award Winners Combine Passion with Active Learning for Student Success

Teaching their passion with an active learning style is evident in all four of this year’s Lone Star College-CyFair Faculty Excellence Award Winners.

From different disciplines, but with the same commitment to student success and lifelong learning, the winners are professors Sharon Bippus, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL); Heather Gamber, mathematics; Maria Sanders, philosophy and Venancio Ybarra, electronics.

(Sharon Bippus believes education is two-way street with international students)

Bippus said the first time she graduated from college, the plan was a career related to travel and working with people from other cultures, not teaching. While working in the business world, she volunteered for a literacy council. And it was her experience helping two Taiwanese women that sent her back to college for her teaching certificate and ESOL credentials.

 “My students are very motivated because they know they have to learn English if they live in this country and want to continue their education or get a job,” said Bippus, who is in her fifth year at LSC-CyFair. “I like the fact that I learn something every day. You have all these different countries represented in class, so I also learn something about their language, culture, food, way of life and, for me, that’s very interesting.”

She believes education is not a one-way street, but that communication needs to go both ways. She knows she must go beyond subject fundamentals and actually make an emotional connection with her students.  So Bippus builds rapport and creates an atmosphere where students feel comfortable to ask questions, participate, make mistakes and learn.

“It’s not about me lecturing. It’s more about small group activities, role play, group discussion and adding games to help them learn,” she said. “Since a curriculum change, I’m trying to include songs with realistic examples to help students with grammar. It’s fun to explore my creative side.”

In addition, Bippus has incorporated opportunities for her students to practice their English in authentic environments through Service Learning. In the past, students were paired with residents at a retirement community where they were tasked to visit weekly, interview and write their partner’s biographies, which were presented in a formal ceremony. Students have also been partnered with the LSC-CyFair children’s library to select age-appropriate books, songs, games and crafts for Multicultural Story Time. Her students apply what’s learned in class with community service while gaining a sense of civic responsibility and providing a service to the community.

Bippus has been able to include travel in her teaching career, too. Prior to LSC-CyFair, she served two years in the Peace Corps in Russia and taught summer programs in Slovakia and China. More recently, she served as program assistant for LSC-CyFair’s Study Abroad to Italy and then mentored an international student from Egypt as part of the Community Colleges for International Development (CCID) program.

“As a professional educator in the ESOL department at LSC-CyFair, I have the ability to indulge both of my passions: volunteering and working with international students,” she said.

(Heather Gamber - Piper Professor nominee - helps students think logically and see the relevance of math.)

Gamber, who is also LSC-CyFair’s nominee for the prestigious Piper Professor state honor, is a lifelong learner who shares her passion and knowledge of math to motivate her students, prepare them to think logically and see the applications of the mathematical concepts.

Whether or not her students are math majors, Gamber helps simplify theories and show the relevance of mathematics through everyday examples and hands-on activities. Some examples are using the dates on a bag of pennies to show a bell shape of normal distribution in statistics, folding paper to see exponential growth in college algebra or discussing construction of halfpipes for Winter Olympic competitions in trigonometry.

“I try to give students lots of time in class to master problems while working individually or in groups, so when they leave the classroom and go to do homework, they’ve been successful on the material and it’s not new to them,” she said.

Gamber’s classroom is fun and yet a safe place where diversity is embraced and students can make mistakes as they are challenged to a higher level of learning. Gamber takes advantage of opportunities to learn and apply modern techniques to help motivate her students. 

“I enjoy the constant challenge of finding new and creative ways to present my material – no two students or classes are the same, so the work never gets old,” she said. “It’s also my responsibility to learn about my students’ needs, diverse backgrounds and learning styles so I can tailor my teaching to help them be confident and reach their fullest potential.”

Her reward is when a student’s face lights up with an “Aha, I’ve got it moment,” when they’ve completed their degree or been accepted into a professional program or when they’ve got a better job because they’ve mastered the required mathematics.

(Maria Sanders empowers students to articulate beliefs and ask questions on their lifelong journey.)

Sanders strives to empower her philosophy students to be actively engaged learners who carry their learning experience beyond the classroom … and really understand that it’s a lifelong process.

“I’m passionate about knowing specific philosophers and what they said, but I’m not sure that’s as important for students as it is that they learn the skills of critical thinking and critically reflecting on issues,” said Sanders, who’s been teaching for more than two decades. “When students hear someone else’s philosophy, or even when they are expounding on their own, they need the skills to not only articulate what they believe clearly, but also have a solid sense of why they believe it.”

Sanders is honest about her expectations of students and believes in order for learning to occur, she must meet the student where he or she is and provide a safe environment where they feel comfortable. To help them meet the course learning objectives and provide quantitative and qualitative assessment, her assignments include exams, journals, argumentative papers, research projects and service learning projects.

Class time is part in person and part online. Readings, direct questions and guided discussion boards are held online in preparation of class so more time in class is spent developing ideas, to clarify and ask questions and for peer discussion. To engage her students, she uses a variety of methods such as game playing, live debates, role playing and even mock court trials of Plato’s dialogue “Apology” that outlines the trial and conviction of Socrates to death.

“Philosophy is a subject that lends itself to really interactive peer discussion as well as all kinds of applied activities,” she said. “And there are three main areas that apply to their lives – “what is real”, “what can I know” and “how should I live my life?”

Knowing that the meaning of life will not be found in a four-month semester, Sanders said she gives her students the tools to ask the poignant questions to get them started on that lifelong journey.

(Venancio Ybarra develops skills and confidence in students with emphasis on respect for electricity.)

Ybarra spent more than a decade in electronics industry but realized early on that teaching was his destiny, he said, and now his true happiness is helping students reach their goals.

“Being the only full-time electronics professor in the system, I know my students very well since I teach most of the required courses,” said Ybarra, who is founding faculty and department chair at LSC-CyFair. “The most rewarding part is when students confide in me how their lives have changed … several have shared struggles, but the look on their faces when they inform me that their family income has doubled or tripled due to finding employment is the primary reason why teaching is fun and exciting for me.”

For students to gain confidence and develop the skills needed in a field that rapidly changes, Ybarra’s classes are half lecture/ half lab and feature hands-on active learning. He makes sure students relate calculated data in lecture to real-world data in lab assignments and incorporates computer simulation of circuit analysis as is industry practice. In place of finals exams in certain courses, he uses projects such as building DC power supplies, metal detectors and an automated Guitar Hero playing system to serve as a comprehensive review.

He also takes students on industry tours, brings in guest speakers and shares the latest technological innovations with his class through his own professional development as well as creating partnerships with local companies.

In addition, Ybarra also emphasizes safety and respect for all levels of voltage because electricity can be dangerous. He stresses the use of calculators often and the importance of arriving at correct values, because whether working alone or on a team, incorrect measurements can cause injuries or be fatal, he said. 

“Companies are paying you for what you know. Finding solutions pays your salary, so you need to do the calculations and be resourceful or your employment is minimized,’ he said. “Helping students solve complex topics in simple terms is key for those planning electronics as a profession.”

For each of these faculty members, sharing their respective passions and providing a safe classroom environment is key for students to learn and gain the knowledge they need for future success.

For information on LSC-CyFair, go to LoneStar.edu.