Piper Foundation Recognizes Chemistry Professor for Dedication to Teaching
May 5, 2015
Dr. John Sibert was named a 2015 Piper Professor. The award from the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation honors teachers for their dedication to teaching and for their outstanding academic, scientific and scholarly achievement.
Dr. John Sibert, associate professor of chemistry in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UT Dallas, has been named a 2015 Piper Professor by the San Antonio–based Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation.
The award, established in 1958 to recognize outstanding college professors across Texas, is made annually to 10 educators to honor their dedication to the teaching profession and for their outstanding academic, scientific and scholarly achievement.
Each Piper Professor receives a certificate of merit, a gold pin and a $5,000 honorarium. Selection is made on the basis of nominations from two- and four-year colleges and universities.
“The Piper Foundation has done so much for education, not just higher education but at all levels,” Sibert said. “It’s a privilege to receive this kind of recognition, especially in light of the fact that in teaching, there are so many ways to inspire, motivate and educate, and thus so many talented educators across our campus and state.”
“Great teachers make for great universities, and ultimately great students. John Sibert's efforts have contributed immensely to engaging our students and encouraging them to be lifelong learners, and UT Dallas is fortunate to have him.”
Sibert has received multiple teaching honors during the course of his career. From UT Dallas, he earned the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics’ Teacher of the Year Award in 2004; the 2005, 2006 and 2008 Advisor of the Year Awards; and the President’s Teaching Excellence Award in 2010. In 2011, The University of Texas System named Sibert a Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award winner, and in 2013 the UT System inducted him into the inaugural class of its Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
“Great teachers make for great universities, and ultimately great students,” said Dr. Bruce Novak, dean of the school and Distinguished Chair in Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “John Sibert’s efforts have contributed immensely to engaging our students and encouraging them to be lifelong learners, and UT Dallas is fortunate to have him.”
Sibert’s passion for teaching has led to three education grants in the past few years, including a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to increase the number and success of STEM students transferring to UT Dallas from area community colleges. He also received a $250,000 Transforming Undergraduate Education grant from the UT System to expand a novel “Peer-Led Team Learning” (PLTL) program he developed that takes small groups of undergraduate students who are mentored by peers through demanding, large-enrollment gateway courses. Sibert and other faculty members develop packets of scripted material for the peer leaders to use — not to cover homework or tutorial work, but rather to stimulate discussion and problem-solving.
“You put eight students in a room together, there’s no grade, no instructor, no judgment and no answer key,” Sibert explained. “The pressure is off in terms of assessment. It becomes an opportunity to play with the material and come out of each PLTL session a little bit — maybe a lot — smarter and more engaged than when one started.”
When PLTL began in 2008, it focused on one course — general chemistry, which Sibert teaches — and was run out of Sibert’s office. The program now has blossomed to also include organic chemistry and large math and physics courses. Dedicated space has been set aside in the Student Success Center at the Eugene McDermott Library to accommodate the demand: This year alone, more than 2,000 students participated in PLTL groups.
In 2011, UT Dallas’ PLTL program was one of six recipients out of 78 applicants to receive a Star Award from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“This program has been very successful for courses in foundation STEM classes, which are typically the most challenging courses across campus,” Sibert said, noting many PLTL groups fill within minutes after enrollment opens.
The student leaders in the PLTL program not only help fellow students do better in the classroom, but they also gain skills of their own, Sibert said.
“We have these really bright students and give them so much instructional freedom. I think they’re some of the most educationally trained people on our campus,” he said. “And that shouldn’t scare students and parents. It just tells you the quality of the students who are participating in these leadership roles. They’re not just there for content and to keep discussions going. They’re really great at facilitating teamwork and motivating their peers, helping them to become just flat-out better students.”
In addition to teaching, Sibert maintains an active research program in molecular architecture, which involves designing and building new molecules for applications that range from medicine to environmental science to advanced new materials. But his priorities always come back to students.
“I enjoy being around students so much, I think that should be a requirement for the professor title,” Sibert said. “He or she should run toward students, embracing opportunities to challenge, support and engage them both in and out of the classroom.”