Faculty Spotlight: Dawn Sumner

When Dr. Dawn Sumner, professor of Geology at UC Davis, incorporates technology into her teaching, she considers two main criteria: students learning and persistent value. “Different students learn in different ways,” Sumner explains, “so I like to provide multiple ways for them to study and learn the same material, e.g. reading, videos, and exercises, so that they can choose to emphasize the items that help the most.”

“It is also important that the effort I put into technology tools has persistent value,” Sumner adds. “The tools need to work multiple years in a row so that I can build up a significant set of resources.”

To date, Sumner has consistently incorporated five tools into her courses:

  1. Blog. Sumner posts her lecture notes online as a blog.
  2. SmartSite Quizzes. Sumner provides guidance for studying via online exercises like SmartSite quizzes.
  3. Computer Models. Sumner incorporates these tools in some of her labs.
  4. Google Earth. This real-time web resource includes a geographic component that allows Sumner to answer student questions by illustrating general principles via a specific site.
  5. YouTube. “I have made several dozen short videos of me describing important principles in sedimentary geology,” Sumner explains. “These are the same principles I emphasize in lecture, and I aim my videos at the level of the students in my class.”

While Sumner created the videos for her students, they’ve proven useful for people around the globe. Sumner’s YouTube Channel, Sumnerd’s Sedimentology, has 440 subscribers, over 157,000 views, and many appreciative comments.  “I think that they are effective because they are simple,” says Sumner, “they focus on one or two key points that the student needs to learn. They aren’t about me.”

For Sumner, the end-goal is to “allow and encourage students to learn in their own ways,” and technology helps her do that. She cites Kahn Academy as a source of inspiration because it “turns the focus from the teacher to the student by providing video, audio, still images, practice, and context for each bite-sized topic.” These tools not only cater to unique learning personalities, but also “free up teachers to play the essential roles of helping solve learning challenges, providing motivation and encouragement, and communicating in ways that are individual to specific students. This is the way I want to teach, and technology is starting to allow that to happen.”

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