- President's Award for Distinguished Teaching (2010)
One of the great rewards for teachers is receiving correspondence from former students years later with reflections on the positive influences those instructors have had on their lives. If actions speak louder than words, then Ann Grens' educational progeny have raised the bar on one of the telltale signs of successful teaching. In 2005, acting independently and of their own volition (and from their own pocketbooks), Grens' students created the Dr. Ann M. Grens Biology Scholarship.
Grens can produce stacks of student evaluations that confirm her status as a transformative, enthusiastic and influential instructor. But it's evaluations like one from a freshman who'd taken one of Grens' 100-level biology courses that resound with her the most: "I hate biology. With that said, I believe Dr. Grens is one of the best instructors I have had. She is fair, has a great personality and is very cognizant of the difficulty of this material. I wish Dr. Grens taught a course on some material I would enjoy."
"Surprised by the degree of rigor." "This class is really hard, and I really learned a lot." These are the responses that Grens finds rewarding. "This is exactly what I'm trying for," she said in a recent self-evaluation of her work.
Trained as a geneticist and cell biologist, Grens, according to IU South Bend Department of Biological Sciences chair Andrew Schnabel, has had a transformative effect not only on her students -- she advises around 350 students each semester -- but also on the department, and, rippling outward, on the South Bend and northern Indiana science learning community.
"Of all the colleagues I have worked with in my 14 years at IU South Bend, none even comes close to having the broad positive impact on student learning that Ann has had through her dedication to science education and one-on-one mentoring," Schnabel says. "Her unquestioned excellence and rigor in the classroom have set a high standard for the rest of us, but most importantly, she has inspired students to excel far beyond their own expectations and has provided many of them with a valued model for their own careers."
Through innovative curriculum development efforts she has helped move forward a new model of biology teaching that puts greater emphasis on research training, and her dedication to improving secondary science education and student advising has led to strong positive outcomes that extend far beyond her work in the department, Schnabel explains.
Though her research passion has been in the area of molecular and developmental biology at the cellular level or below -- her studies have been conducted using hydra, a tiny relative of marine corals and sea anemones -- Grens has successfully developed and taught a broad diversity of courses in an effort "that would never be attempted by most professors," Schnabel notes.
Beyond core courses in her discipline of developmental and molecular biology, Grens developed two survey courses in animal diversity, significantly reworked the introductory course for majors that includes far-from-her-field topics such as photosynthesis and plant anatomy, and designed a graduate course in marine ecology.
"She is a dynamic and powerful communicator who possesses the gift of making complex subjects understandable to her students," says former student Steve Duleh, now a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cell biology at the University of California Berkeley.
And while Grens teaches an average of three courses each semester, she says that most of her work with students occurs elsewhere as academic advising and mentoring, which she considers inextricably linked and which consume at least as much of her time, if not more, than all of her class-based teaching responsibilities.
"It was Dr. Grens who first suggested that I apply to Ph.D. programs at top universities that I never would have considered without her encouragement," says former student Patrick McDonel, now a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge. "In her typical style she didn't merely suggest schools, but also spent hours helping with the application process itself, combing through and translating stacks of faculty research descriptions, editing my various essays and letters, and coaching me for the interviews."
Schnabel describes her as a "driving force behind the reorganization of the entire advising structure within IUSB's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences," and the Secondary Education Life Sciences core curriculum. Grens also teaches the Secondary Education Science Methods course, mentors secondary education majors, has taught a master's course in teaching Advanced Placement Biology for in-service high school teachers, and designed graduate courses for science teachers.
IU School of Medicine student Gerald Morris Jr., after taking two of Grens' classes, was part of the effort to establish a scholarship in the teacher's name. "As part of the efforts, I individually asked over 40 students to make contributions to the fund, and every student I asked donated on the spot without hesitation," Morris recalls. "I think that speaks for itself."