Q&A with Teaching Award Winner Molly Cavaleri

Molly Cavaleri in tropical greenhouse
Molly Cavaleri in tropical greenhouse
Molly Cavaleri has won Michigan Tech’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award.

Molly Cavaleri is the recipient of Michigan Technological University’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Associate Professor/Professor category.

Molly Cavaleri is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. She received her bachelor’s in molecular biology from the University of Wisconsin, her master’s in forestry from the University of Minnesota, and her Ph.D. in ecology from Colorado State University. She studies how trees work by taking fine-scale physiology measurements then extrapolating what she learns in order to answer big ecological questions within the context of global change.

"Molly is an exceptional teacher who shares her passion to understand how plants interact with the environment and how global change is impacting ecosystems. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Molly maintains a focus on the well-being of her students. Her empathy and understanding of some of the challenges that students face within and outside the classroom lead to a better student experiences, enhanced student performance in classes and ultimately, student success. She is also an outstanding mentor to students who want to explore research, and helps them embark on a path that leads to the next stages in their careers."Andrew Storer, dean of the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science

Briana Bettin is the recipient of Michigan Tech’s 2022 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor category. 

Q: Could you describe your work in the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Studies?

MC: Here in CFRES, I wear a few different hats. In the spring, I teach tree physiology to undergraduates. In fall semesters, I teach graduate students my own field of research, ecophysiology, which is basically the study of how plants are affected by their environment. I also serve as the director of graduate studies for the College, which involves processing all submitted graduate applications and helping current grad students with any questions or concerns as they move through their milestones toward graduation. Finally, I co-lead multiple research projects involving the effects of climate change on both temperate and tropical forests. I am a forest ecophysiologist with expertise in tree canopy structure and function and the cycling of carbon and water through forests. Through this work, I currently mentor five graduate students who have research projects at sites both here in Michigan and in Puerto Rico. I also write and co-write proposals to keep this work funded and peer-reviewed papers to report on our research findings.

Q: I can think of many words to describe the climate in the Upper Peninsula, but tropical is certainly not one of them. How do you study tropical forest responses to climate change from a classroom in the Keweenaw? 

MC: The Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment is a forest warming experiment in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. TRACE is currently the only experiment in the world studying the interactive effects of both warming and hurricane disturbance on tropical forests, particularly the effects on carbon and nutrient cycling. We are also unique in that we are led by a women-only team of principal investigators: Sasha Reed (U.S. Geological Survey), Tana Wood (U.S. Forest Service) and myself. Within TRACE, I lead the effort to explore the effects of disturbance on tropical plant physiological processes like plant respiration and photosynthesis. My graduate and undergraduate students travel there for fieldwork campaigns, and I am able to go one or two times per year for meetings and fieldwork. The rest of the year, I have weekly Zoom meetings with the TRACE team to stay informed and to help make decisions about the project. I would not be able to do this without our amazing team in Puerto Rico who focus on the day-to-day project needs.

Q: How would you describe your teaching style? 

MC: I use multiple styles across my graduate and undergraduate courses, including discussion, facilitation, demonstration and lecture. My graduate courses are generally small (eight to 15 students), so I am better able to employ discussion-based and active learning techniques. At the beginning of the semester, each student selects one topic (e.g., effects of high temperature on photosynthesis), for which they develop a one-week module and then teach it to their peers. This may include lecturing, leading journal article discussions and/or creating laboratory exercises. I meet multiple times with each student to help them assemble their lesson plans and provide teaching materials and critical feedback. In this way, the students learn from each other, gain experience teaching and also learn a topic of their choosing in depth. They quickly realize how well one must understand a topic in order to teach it effectively!

My undergraduate courses are larger (25-50 students) and tend to be more lecture-based. Personally, I think the best way to learn the content is to come to class and engage in the experience live, as I do interactive activities like think-pair-share and full-class brainstorming. I am a visual learner, so I use a lot of diagrams, animations, videos and my own whiteboard drawings to help get across complex biological processes. However, I also think that during these weird and unprecedented pandemic times, it is critical to be flexible. For students who aren’t always able to attend live classes, I also provide readings, online quizzes, video lectures, live review sessions and video review sessions. Every week, I poll the students using PollEverywhere.com to find out what topics from the previous week they found confusing, then I focus my reviews on results of these polls. I do think it is important to offer a variety of different methods of content delivery, as each student has their own learning style and individual constraints.

Distinguished Teaching Award

Since 1982, the annual Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award has been awarded in two categories: Associate Professor/Professor and Teaching Professor/Professor of Practice/Assistant Professor. The award nomination and review processes are student-driven; finalists are selected based on student ratings regarding quality of instruction. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.

Q: What instructional methods or philosophies do you use to be successful?

MC: Honestly, I don’t think the method of delivery is as important as how we treat our students as humans. They are all facing unique challenges and striving toward different goals. When students are clearly struggling, I reach out to them. For example, when they miss big assignment deadlines, I will contact the student, not necessarily to remind them to turn it in or let them know of a late penalty, but to check in on them and ask them if there is anything I can do to help them get across the finish line. More often than not, they are going through something big and personal, and they just need a little more time. I would much rather my students ask me for help and extensions than become paralyzed with guilt and anxiety. 

Prioritizing health, including mental health, has consistently led to better outcomes, overall. Once I removed late penalties, I have never again had a student fail my class due to missing a large assignment. I believe positive reinforcement and encouragement also promote much better products than punitive policies. The students want to do well and hand in the best product they can when they sense that you respect them as people. We can support our students best when we prioritize their well-being above rubrics and deadlines. I think you probably would agree that we all perform better when we feel respected and supported!

Q: Who (or what) inspired you to become a teacher?

MC: To be honest, I was trained as a researcher, not a teacher! I did not have much experience teaching before I got the job of assistant professor. I was very much thrown into the deep end of the pool with minimal training. The Center for Teaching and Learning workshops and sessions were hugely helpful early on. Luckily, it turned out that I loved it and had a knack for breaking down large, complex processes into easily understandable bite-size pieces. 

Molly and a watering can
Molly Cavaleri brings compassion to her classrooms, even when her classrooms don't lack for warmth. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face in your work and how do you address and/or overcome those challenges?

MC: As most tenure-track professors would tell you, the biggest challenge of this job is learning how to balance and prioritize all of the different facets of the work without letting any given piece be neglected for too long, and also without letting it encroach too much into my personal life. It can be a rather tough balancing act. My family always gets top priority, then my students, and then the rest of my commitments to colleagues and service. I give myself strict boundaries on how much time I give to each endeavor. Teaching, especially, can take up just as much time as you give to it. Students have no idea how long it takes to put a lesson plan together, but often the classes I throw together at the last minute (“just in time” teaching!) turn out to be the most spontaneous and engaging. 

It is also really important to manage other people’s expectations of you. When new duties or service activities land on my plate, for example, this is an excellent time to request that other obligations be taken off. I have learned how to say no early and often, how to delegate when appropriate, when to ask for help and under what circumstances one can ask for extensions. I am not always successful in avoiding guilt or self-recrimination, but it is very helpful to remind myself that there will never be a time when everything is done. I imagine my workload as a continuous conveyor belt upon which new items are deposited at approximately the same rate as I accomplish older commitments. Sometimes it gets backed up by illness, vacation or because I’m working on a big proposal. During these times, my colleagues are incredibly supportive, and everyone understands when things are sometimes late. In the same way I hope that my students feel comfortable asking me for help or extensions, it is important for me to preserve my own mental health on occasion and do the same.  

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.