“We care for each other, we watch out for each other, we push each other, we challenge each other.”
2017 Teacher of the Year on Loyola's community and her new role as Class Dean
June 2, 2017
When asked to name her favorite thing about Loyola, Birgit Albrecht, Ph.D.—this year’s Harry W. Rodgers III Distinguished Teacher of the Year—doesn’t hesitate.
“The people, and the community,” she said definitively. “We care for each other, we watch out for each other, we push each other, we challenge each other.”
The associate professor of chemistry, who has been teaching at Loyola since 2007, knows the value of personal relationships firsthand. She grew up in Germany (or as she calls it, “middle-of-nowhere Bavaria) in a village with roughly 40 houses.
She was always drawn to the sciences, and eventually moved to England to study at the University of Surrey. There, she met a mentor who connected her with the University of Oxford, where she eventually earned her Ph.D.
After moving to the United States to be with her American husband—a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy—she became was a post-doctoral research fellow at Yale University. When the couple started looking for a place to settle down that was also near a Navy base, Albrecht stumbled across Loyola.
“I wanted to find a small school where I’d have a lot of contact with the students,” she explains. “I came [to Loyola] for a visit and just loved it.”
Albrecht found the student-professor relationships she was craving through her work as a core and major advisor, a role she cherishes due to the impact she can have on students throughout their college career. She jokes that she needs a couch in her office so students can lie down for the “therapy sessions” that take place there.
“We treat [students] as grown-ups from day one at Loyola, and by the time they graduate they really are,” she said. “I try to be honest with them. I say, ‘You may not like what I’m saying, but I’m going to give you my best and honest opinion.’ There’s no judgment, no lecturing, but they know I’m not trying to sugarcoat things for them. Undergrads don’t always know the best way to tackle a problem. I try to get them to look at the big picture and make concrete steps and action items.”
Jesse More, Ph.D. chair of the chemistry department, echoes that idea. “Birgit literally spends hours per week with students out of class helping them with coursework, listening to their problems, and advising them on careers and life in general,” he said.
“What sets Birgit apart from other professors is her selflessness and compassion for students and her generosity with her time, which reflects a true concern for student success not only in the classroom, but also in their life in general.”
Albrecht also serves on the National Fellowship Committee, where she draws from her personal background to mentor students applying for Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, Fulbright, and Goldwater scholarships—some of whom want insight on what it’s like to live overseas.
And she uses a similar method in her teaching style, where she’s particularly drawn to peer-led and active-learning approaches. She spearheaded the Supplemental Instruction (SI) pilot program on campus, which aims to foster mentorships between upper-level students and those in introductory chemistry courses.
“It’s basically peer tutoring,” she explains. “The key is that SI tutoring isn’t just doing the problems for them—instead, the [upper-level] student will go over problem-solving strategies. It’s kind of like teaching students how to teach themselves, how to break the problems down.”
She also has students work in groups whenever possible, and asks upper-level students to join groups with first-year students.
“[I’m trying to] make science a bit more fun, and also give upper-level students some leadership and teaching skills.”
Albrecht focuses on including technology in her classroom through 3-D printers, Google Cardboard, and other interactive tools. Last summer, she was co-PI for a National Science Foundation grant to establish a supercomputer on campus, which is now available for the entire Loyola community.
“Science can be so dry… Sometimes [students] just need to get their hands on something. I try to keep it fresh and interesting.”
Albrecht continues to find ways to incorporate pedagogical changes at Loyola through the Reimaging the Curriculum Committee—a group of 15 professors who are examining the school’s core and major curricula and reviewing proposals for changes. She also has served multiple terms on the Academic Standards committee.
And she will face her biggest challenge yet when she serves as class dean for the incoming class of 2021, a role in which she thinks she can make a huge impact.
“It’s a period of so much change [for the students],” she said. “I think I can do a lot of good. Most people who go to the class dean are the ones who need help the most, but I also want to pick out the students with great potential and push them a bit harder. I’m going to really try and be class dean for everybody.”
More believes she’s primed for the role. “Her positive attitude and ability to tell students honestly where they need to improve doesn’t come across as preachy, but rather as genuine and caring,” she said. “Birgit shows incredible patience and genuine compassion for her students.”
Her students, in turn, are grateful; undergraduate students nominate the Distinguished Teacher of the Year for the award.
Albrecht, who lives in Annapolis with her husband and 4- and 6-year-old daughters, has a favorite anecdote to share when prospective students ask her about Loyola.
“My older daughter faints easily, but we didn’t know that until recently when I got a call from her school saying she had fainted. I was supposed to teach a lab that afternoon, so I sent a quick email [to students] saying ‘My colleague is coming in, I have to go.’ I think within an hour, every single student in that class had emailed me back saying that they hoped my daughter was okay and that they were thinking of me. Every single one of them. It’s not just my colleagues here; it’s the students, too. We are a community.”