Wieden earns Distinguished Teaching Award

In the manner of a week, Dr. Hans-Joachim (HJ) Wieden learned he'd be receiving two teaching awards this spring – one from the University and another from the students. It's safe to say his philosophy, and the subsequent delivery on that promise, has hit the mark.

"It was a good week, it kind of raised the hair on my forearms," says Wieden, a chemist by nature and professor of physical biochemistry.

"It's cool. A lot of the teaching I do does not involve formal teaching evaluations," he says. "I only instruct two classes a year and it needs to be that way. If I had a teaching load of four classes, there isn't going to be any research coming out of this lab, or I wouldn't be able to teach independent study students or help with the iGEM program."

Dr. HJ Wieden
Dr. HJ Wieden is most at home in his lab, working one-on-one with students.

It begs the question then, how does Wieden get noticed as one of the University's best teachers, winning the 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award and one of three Students' Union Teaching Excellence Awards, when there are few metrics with which to measure his performance? It comes from his students, who have made a point of letting people know just how influential Wieden has been on their academic experience.

A native of Germany, Wieden learned early what manner of teaching he found most effective, well before he ever knew he'd be a professor.

"The experience I had as an undergrad taught me something," says Wieden.
His first exposure to post-secondary studies came at Heinrich-Heine University in Dusseldorf where he was thrust into an introductory chemistry class as one of 1,200 students in an 800-seat auditorium. With no opportunity for student-teacher interaction, the only way for students to succeed was if they were extremely self-motivated or exceptional learners.

"I hated that and it almost made me stop attending university," says Wieden.

He, of course, made it through, spurred on by a keen interest in biochemistry and physical chemistry.

"When I learned about that, I got excited," he says. "I liked the idea of small molecular machines doing stuff in your cells, and that we can, by retro-engineering them to learn how they are designed, help us to build molecular machines with novel functions. It's like taking a car apart and putting it back together."

Wieden is animated and excitable when he talks biochemistry, and it's a palpable enthusiasm that he brings to his students. While studying for his PhD at Witten/Herdecke University (Germany's first privately-funded university), he gained his first exposure to a different manner of teaching and learning.

"What I liked was the direct contact, you could see students going to labs doing hands-on stuff and doing research right away," he says. "I think those two different approaches to teaching inspired me."

When he found an opening at the U of L in the back of the magazine NATURE, he investigated the post and quickly found it suited his ideals.

"I got the job, got here and really saw the place. Everybody is friendly to each other, the size is right and I felt it was a good place where I could actually do something," he says. "In the bigger schools, you are often disconnected from the students. I have colleagues from these institutions who don't know how to get grad students because they have no teaching contact.

"The possibility to actually shape something here was a big reason I saw this as a good place to be."

He excels as an independent study supervisor and since 2007 has been involved in the highly successful iGEM program as well. In each endeavour, he relishes the opportunity to draw the best out of his students.

"I look at a class of 30 students with 30 individuals and 30 different brains," says Wieden. "There are probably 30 different ways to get into their brains and teach them something, and individualized learning allows us to do that – that's a very cool thing.

"There's always a way to connect to a topic. It could be the most awesome topic in the world but if the teacher doesn't tell it in a way that sparks you, it will never be interesting and that's what we try and do."

The awards are, to some degree, a validation, but on another level, they reflect the outcome of his process.

"It gives me a feeling that there is recognition for the time I've spent with individualized teaching in and outside of the classroom, and it shows that the students who went through the program are aware of that," says Wieden. "I've told my students that they have to give back, if you like something say it, and if you dislike something, say it."

The students have obviously spoken.

This story first appeared in the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.