If your homework assignment includes crafting an axe handle from a hickory sapling or creating an in-depth visual art project exploring your favorite woody plant, chances are you’re in one of Professor of Environmental Studies Irene Rossell’s classes. Chances are also good that you won’t spend much time sitting quietly and taking notes in class; in Rossell’s classes, you learn by doing. It’s that teaching philosophy, along with her constant dedication to her students and to her community, that has earned Rossell the 2021 Board of Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Rossell’s classes, such as Wildlife Ecology and Management, Wildcrafting, Natural History of the Southern Appalachians, Hiking through History and many others, provide students the opportunity to head out into the field to engage not only in scientific exploration, but in the many cultural, historical, and ecological relationships between humans and plants.
“There is no better classroom than the outdoors,” Rossell said.
Rossell has extended that classroom to middle and high school migrant farmworker youth as director of “Science on the Move: Closing the Opportunity Gap for Migrant Youth with Science, Technology, and Multimedia.” “Science on the Move,” a Burroughs Wellcome grant-funded program, created in partnership with the Buncombe County Schools Migrant Education Program, brings these students to UNC Asheville’s campus for a two-week science camp each summer, where they engage in hands-on science and multimedia activities in STEM fields including chemistry, atmospheric sciences, ecology, biology, physics, computer sciences, and engineering, all mentored by faculty and undergraduates. During the academic year, “Science on the Move” students participate in experiential field trips and have access to online interactive modules, authored by Rossell, in the “Virtual Science Club.”
“Irene embodies the qualities I consider essential for teaching: joy of learning, perseverance, curiosity, empathy, a spirit of collaboration, and a commitment to excellence,” said Nancy Moore, outreach specialist with the Buncombe County Schools Migrant Education Program. “Dr. Rossell created Science on the Move from her desire to share her knowledge as a scientist and as an educator.”
Rossell’s undergraduate students praise those essential teaching qualities, as well.
“She is patient and kind, welcoming all questions as a learning opportunity,” said Kate Loughran ’20, an environmental studies graduate. “Her curiosity for the natural world inspires her students to continue the pursuit for knowledge outside of the classroom and bring observations into class for relatable dialogue amongst peers.”
Her support of her students continues after their time in the classroom, as well.
“Long after I have graduated from UNC Asheville, Dr. Rossell has continued to work with me to prepare a manuscript to submit to a scientific journal,” said Eva Brod ’18, now a sustainability consultant. “One day, I was out in the field taking samples when a little girl approached me and asked, ‘Are you a scientist?’ I had always dreamed of becoming a scientist. Dr. Rossell believed in me and took the time to give me the skills to pursue my dreams. As a woman in science, Dr. Rossell leads the way for students like me, and shows girls of all ages that women belong in science.”
Rossell, who has taught at UNC Asheville since 1993, received the UNC Asheville Distinguished Teacher Award in 2013 and the UNC Asheville Award for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences in 2008. She has published numerous scholarly articles, many co-authored with her students, most recently “Ecological characteristics of epilithic and epiphytic Rhodobryum ontariense in western North Carolina,” co-authored with Brod, in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society.
The UNC System Board of Governors Award is now in its 27th year. Established by the Board in 1993 to highlight the importance of teaching, the award recognizes the extraordinary contributions of faculty members System wide. The recipients, who represent all 16 of North Carolina’s public universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, were nominated by special committees at each institution and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Educational Planning, Policies, and Programs.