Professor named top of the class
An ace academic, award winning author and ornithologist from the University of Sheffield has added another feather to his cap after being named the best bioscience teacher in the UK by a prestigious professional body.
Professor Tim Birkhead of the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences has been named UK Bioscience Teacher of the Year by the UK Society of Biology in honour of three decades of inspirational teaching matched by a longstanding passion for research out in the field.
The Higher Education Bioscience Teacher of the Year Award was established to identify the UK’s leading bioscience higher education teachers, recognising the invaluable role they play in developing the next generation of scientists.
Tim came to Sheffield in 1976 and over the years has repeatedly been top-rated by students for his outstanding teaching. Yet according to Tim, the experience of having had inspirational teaching himself was crucial in the development of his own approach.
He said: “Both at school and as an undergraduate I was enthused by a handful of exceptional teachers. As an academic my aim has been to inspire undergraduates through my teaching.
“There is concern in the UK about the decline in the number of students studying science. One reason for this is that at school students perceive science to be dull and difficult, possibly as a consequence of the educational process at school being more like ‘filling a bucket’ than ‘lighting a fire’. Fortunately, academics in universities still have the freedom to combine bucket-filling with fire-lighting. Although I love research, I’d really like to be remembered for making students think.”
This view is confirmed by the experience of students who describe Tim’s active-learning approach as “by far the most interesting and thought-provoking module I have done at university”.
David Gosney, who graduated from Animal and Plant Biology in 1979 and went on to be a school teacher, wildlife film maker and guide, said: “What was exciting was the way Tim involved us students in issues, asking us questions, and persuading us to make our own observations in a way that led us to believe that we might be able to make a contribution ourselves. Even if our ideas were naïve he was brilliant at asking questions that encouraged us to think along the same lines but more rigorously.”
This commitment to the student experience was shared by Kevin Gaston, now a Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Exeter.
He added: “I was the first member of my family ever to go to university, and my choice of subject was determined more by thoughts of simple monetary gain than interest. Fortunately, Tim’s lectures spoke to the things that I was actually really passionate about, and inspired me to study those. I switched subjects, and throughout the rest of my degree benefited from Tim’s tremendous enthusiasm, skill, and dedication as a teacher. He helped lay the foundations for my career, and so the legacy of Tim’s teaching lasts to this day.”
The award has been warmly welcomed by University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett, who described Tim’s approach as a teacher and researcher as ‘truly inspiring, and flowing from Tim’s absolute commitment to the value and excitement of science which he shares with students in ways which change their perceptions forever.
Chris Cole Zoology, Executive Producer at the BBC Natural History Unit, best captures the warm, witty and infectious enthusiasm which is Tim’s hallmark, adding: “I always felt that within Tim was still a small eight-year-old boy with a pair of second hand binoculars round his neck looking at the natural world in wonder – and that’s a truly wonderful thing to have. It’s because Tim still hangs on to that authentic sense of wonder, and can share it, that he’s stayed fresh and engaging as a teacher and at the top of his field as someone who observes, questions and seeks to better understand nature.”
In addition to his work as an academic, for seven years Tim wrote a regular (every 4-6 weeks) column in The Times Higher Education. This included his forthright views on teaching, mixed with his usual wit:
“Contrary to what students may think, coming to university is not like turning up at the barbers, paying for a haircut and sitting there passively while someone else does all the work. Rather, it is -- or should be -- more like turning up to an appointment with a personal trainer, where you are told how to get fit but have to do the work.”
Tim also curates The Denny Museum, which was established in 1905 and named after the department's first professor of biology. Many of the specimens have been in the museum since the early 1900s when collecting was at its peak. The museum has been in continuous use for teaching undergraduates for more than 100 years and is now encouraging children from city schools to 'become a scientist' through its inspirational outreach program. The Alfred Denny Museum is open on the first Saturday of each month for guided tours at 10am, 11am and 12pm.
For more information, see https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/alfred-denny-museum.
The University of Sheffield
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