Susan Keen

2006 Award for Excellence in Teaching

“You need to find what lets you forget the passage of time,” a former student recalls Susan Keen advising him about choosing a vocation. In teaching biology, animal diversity and evolution, clearly Keen has found her own calling. Descriptions from students, TAs and colleagues all echo praises of her passion, infectious enthusiasm, dedication, creativity, organization, encyclopedic knowledge, lucid thought-provoking explanations, and inspiring researcher’s understanding of animal diversity and evolution.

Even before earning her Ph.D. in Biology at UC Davis in 1991, Keen’s extraordinary gifts as an instructor were recognized by the faculty she assisted: “She managed, through a combination of nurturing and prodding, to incite students to explore the bounds of what they were capable of achieving,” one reported, and “richly deserved receiving a Graduate Student Teaching Award in 1991.”

Since 1993 Keen has served as a Lecturer and Director for Introductory Biology (BIS1B), teaching innumerable sections of a large-enrollment course required by virtually all life science majors. The course introduces the diversity of the animal kingdom using evolution as a unifying theme. Keen seeks not only to present biological information, but also to “introduce a scientific worldview,” which requires establishing a teacher-student connection—a daunting task when teaching up to 480 students at a time.

Although Keen says. “I frequently feel challenged to expand my personality to fill a large lecture hall,” her students appreciate her creative tactics for challenging, inspiring, and helping them to learn, whether story-telling, illustrating concepts with beach balls or 3-D models of fish gills, encouraging active learning through hands-on activities and interesting labs, thoroughly answering all questions, devising detailed handouts and study guides, providing streaming audio of lectures online, holding extensive office hours, advising students about research opportunities, and suggesting alternative studying and test-taking strategies to students who are struggling.

Caring about her students’ learning and conscious of their diverse backgrounds and learning styles, Keen has a gift for anticipating what students may not understand.

She regularly teaches seminars connected to BIS1B for the Davis Honors Challenge, connecting concepts to real life, creating a comfortable learning environment, listening to her students and genuinely considering their opinions, one reported “as though they were from her equals.”

What students don’t see is Keen’s continually exerting “a force for innovation and change” behind the scenes: guiding over 2000 students per year through BIS 1B, revising and developing new lab activities, rewriting lab manuals, developing TA training videos, developing a course web site, improving the learning center, even participating in designing the new Sciences Laboratory Building and coordinating the move. She is currently playing a leading role in creating a new, more conceptually focused core sequence to replace BIS1.

A reviewer for several academic journals, Keen has contributed chapters to a text on Integrated Principles of Zoology and improved a text on Animal Diversity enough to be listed as co-author. She has also designed and taught a new course on pedagogy, Teaching Organismal Biology, for undergraduate and graduate students. Keen is also working to standardize California community college courses in order to ease transfer students’ adjustment to universities. The Teaching Resources Center has asked her to participate in a discussion group for faculty interested in crafting a more open and interactive atmosphere in their classes.