Laura Burrus speaks to students as CEFNS dean candidate

Laura Burrus, chair of the Department of Biology at San Francisco State University, visited NAU as the first candidate for dean of the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences. Photo courtesy of San Francisco State University Department of Biology website.

The College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences (CEFNS) is in the process of selecting a new dean, and Laura Burrus introduced herself to students as the first candidate early Tuesday morning.

Burrus is currently chair of the Department of Biology at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Her academic background includes a doctorate in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, along with four years as a developmental biology postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. Since 1997, Burrus has taught an array of biology courses at SFSU, including coursework for undergraduate and graduate students.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Burrus emphasized her involvement with student success and participation. Throughout her eight years of teaching introductory biology classes with over 270 students, Burrus refined her teaching style to prioritize learning and engagement.

One technique Burrus implemented is "think, pair, share." This teaching style partners students and creates conversations, which enables everyone to contribute — even in a class with 300 students.

“It’s really important to practice articulating ideas,” Burrus said at her student forum. “The feedback we get is that it doesn’t feel like a big class anymore.”

When Burrus’ introductory biology courses became more participatory and productive, retention rates improved dramatically. Burrus said that graduation rates increased by 20% for students from majority backgrounds while escalating by 50% for students from underrepresented demographics.

According to the NAU's Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, CEFNS had an overall enrollment of 4,801 students in fall 2019, making it the third largest college at NAU. Over 3,000 of these students are also women, which comprises approximately 65% of the college's total students

As a prospective dean of CEFNS, Burrus explained the significance of student success within the coursework, research and relationships.

“I want all students to be successful, regardless of their demographics, socioeconomic status or if they’re first-generation,” Burrus said at the forum. “I think it’s critically important.”

Burrus also inquired about the various opportunities and encounters students have benefitted from during their time at NAU.

Senior chemistry major Alyssa Smith said the faculty in CEFNS have dramatically improved her experiences at NAU.

“I just feel like [the professors] actually genuinely care, and want to see us do well,” Smith said.

Smith added students of NAU’s chemistry program can also have significant involvement outside the classroom. Smith participates in lab research with various mentors and professors, and she also received the NASA Space Grant.

After discussing Smith’s experiences at CEFNS, the conversation shifted toward connecting scientific inquiry, and the university, to the surrounding community.

Burrus explained it is important for educators and universities to support local infrastructure. In particular, she said scientists at NAU can help standardize environmental policies, develop transit systems and decrease carbon emissions.

Furthermore, scientific principles can be applied to separate fields, especially those within the corporate realm. Burrus indicated the usefulness of the university offering climate change courses to local business owners, which could promote greater awareness and attention to environmental impacts. Another potential case comes from real estate transactions, where various agents could reiterate the importance of solar panels to clients and homeowners after studying renewable energy.

“Education is critically important," Burrus said. "If we don’t train a science-literate public to vote for people who are concerned about the climate, then we’re going to be in even deeper trouble than we already are."

Although Flagstaff already has a sustainability program, Burrus said collaboration between the university and city could complement each other and lead to greater results.

The second and third finalists for the dean of CEFNS will be on campus next week as the ongoing search continues. Afterward, the fourth and final candidate will host forums Feb. 11 and Feb. 12 to conclude the process.