2019 Distinguished Teaching Award

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The UCLA Academic Senate’s Committee on Teaching has selected Dr Jennifer Casey for a 2019 Distinguished Teaching Award for Non-Senate Faculty.

“Jennifer stands shoulder to shoulder with other exemplary UCLA teachers and is truly deserving of this prestigious award” said Department Chair Professor Catherine Clarke. “In every class, whether she was teaching it for the first time or the fifth, more than half the students gave her the highest evaluation possible. These evaluations tell only a small portion of her distinguished teaching performance. In the classroom she practices active-learning techniques that engage all students in the learning process, she fosters confidence even in the most timid of students by encouraging one-on-one meetings with her, and she serves as a de facto role model for young women. Behind the scenes she is a leading force in the department for bringing about evidence-based change to our lower division instruction for the Life Science majors.”

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Dr. Jennifer Casey teaching her 

General and Organic Chemistry Laboratory II (Chem14CL) 


Among the highest honors given by the Academic Senate, the Distinguished Teaching Award recognizes academically and professionally accomplished individuals who bring respect and admiration to the scholarship of teaching. Recipients are selected from nominations received by colleagues and leaders across the campus.  

Casey is one of three non-senate faculty campus-wide who will be honored during the annual Andrea L. Rich Night to Honor Teaching ceremony in the fall, an event co-hosted by the Academic Senate and the UCLA Office of Instructional Development.

A native Californian, Casey attended California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) as a Presidential Scholar where she conducted research in organic chemistry with Professor Kensaku Nakayama and in physical chemistry with Professor Brian McClain. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in mathematics from CSULB in 2007. 

After graduation, Casey joined the group of Professor Benjamin Schwartz at UCLA as a physical chemistry graduate student where she investigated the structural properties of the hydrated electron using mixed quantum/classical molecular dynamics simulations. During her graduate studies, Casey served as a teaching assistant for many quarters and received the department’s prestigious Hanson-Dow Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009. She also participated in a year-long NSF-funded project in which she designed and implemented new inquiry-based laboratory experiments for teachers interested in incorporating hands-on chemistry in their high school classrooms.  

After receiving her Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 2014, Casey accepted a visiting-assistant professor position at Sonoma State University in Northern California where she helped create a Foundational-Level General Science Waiver program in an effort to increase the number of qualified instructors in California secondary schools. In 2016, when her husband was offered a position in Los Angeles, Casey was eager to return to UCLA and was offered a lecturer position in the department. She also lectured briefly at Loyola Marymount University and participated in their Center for Teaching Excellence Credential Program.

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Casey speaking with students during her office hours.

Since returning to UCLA, Casey has continued assisting future teachers through her involvement in the department’s team-taught Chem 192A practicum—a stepping stone for aspiring science high school teachers. Casey is an active participant in the weekly seminars and welcomes the students into her teaching assistant (TA) meetings and lab sections where they shadow and assist the TA’s. She observes, advises, and mentors the students in the laboratory and gives them extensive feedback on their emerging teaching skills, helping to empower future teachers.

In addition to teaching, Casey also conducts chemical education research in collaboration with Dr. Arlene Russell, Senior Lecturer in the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry and the UCLA Department of Education.

“Casey’s passion for and commitment to excellence extends beyond her own courses and interactions with her students” said Russell.  “I would characterize her impact on the lower division instruction not a ripple effect, but a groundswell. Casey is a truly impressive educator. Her teaching extends beyond her students, to her colleagues, and to future teachers. She is truly deserving of recognition.”

Casey’s popularity with students was clearly evident as she was being photographed during her office hours. When told that Casey had been chosen for a UCLA teaching award, one student said enthusiastically “I love Dr. Casey! She is the best teacher I have ever had!”.  

Casey has two UCLA Major Instructional Improvement (IIP) grants described below:

Utilizing application-based science education videos in an undergraduate chemistry laboratory course for Life Science majors (Major IIP Grant #18-21) (with Dr. Roshini Ramachandran)

As instructors, we expect our students to intuitively apply the topics learned in courses focused on theory, however, many topics in chemistry can be challenging for students to apply in a different context. This problem is particularly prevalent in laboratory courses, where students often do not make the intended connections and therefore blindly follow experimental procedures with little to no insight. Our goal is to bridge the gap between lecture and lab by incorporating Application-Based Science Education videos in the lab courses. Since these videos connect concepts and practice by highlighting real-world applications of experimental techniques, they may provide an effective way to highlight the intention behind an experiment, therefore providing context in order to make the material more relevant and meaningful.

Creating valid, reliable pre- and post-assessment tools to assess students’ abilities to retain, transfer, and apply acid-base chemistry concepts in general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry (Major IIP Grant #18-20) (with Dr. Heather Tienson)

Much of the background content required for Chem 153A is taught throughout the Chem 14 series, which consists of six general and organic chemistry courses designed for life-science majors. While many of the concepts introduced in the Chem 14 series are expanded upon in Chem 153A, a topic of particular interest is acid-base chemistry since it is well known that students struggle with this threshold concept. It is difficult to determine why background deficiencies exist by considering each course individually; our goal is to examine each course in the broader context of the series. This is being done through the creation of pre- and post-assessment tools.

Article and photos by Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.