Note: This is the fourth and final article in a series about South Carolina State University’s Professors of the Year. Dr. Venetia D. Lyles is the award recipient for the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Transportation, as well as the university’s overall honoree.

Succeeding in Dr. Venetia D. Lyles’ chemistry classes at South Carolina State University boils down to three things: Come to class, do the work and ask if you need help.

Her experience taught her the correlation is high between students who do the work and turn it in on time — along with seeking help outside of class — with those who pass the class.

“I realized that understanding chemistry to teach it effectively was only part of being a good teacher,” she said. “I needed to find a way to get more students to buy into their own education.”

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An associate professor in S.C. State’s Department of Biological and Physical Sciences, Lyles is the Professor of the Year for the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Transportation. She was selected from the recipients in all S.C. State colleges to be the university’s overall honoree.

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Lyles also serves as the director of S.C. State’s Savannah River Environmental Sciences Field Station, the only HBCU undergraduate environmental science field station in the nation.

Her teaching philosophy is about meeting students where they are academically while still expecting personal accountability.

“I think that gets lost in the transition from high school to college education. You have to be responsible,” Lyles said. “We can’t force you to go to class. We can ask for your assignments, but if you don’t turn it in, we can give you an F. It’s not like in high school where you can get some extra points. I don’t offer extra credit.

“Once they understand that, they won’t just sit there,” she said. “Once students understand what you require in your courses, they adapt to it.”

That tough love also comes with compassion. If Lyles sees students starting to slide with attendance or assignments, she tries to find out why and counsel them.

“They don’t have to be perfect. I’m not looking for perfection, I’m looking for work ethic,” she said. “Are you working toward understanding the subject? Are you working toward being a better learner? If you need help, ask.”

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She encourages her students to remember their goals of working in a STEM-related (science, technology, math and engineering) field.

“You can’t do that by being stagnant. That means a constant quest of trying to get better,” Lyles said. “A lot of students who have that work ethic are not necessarily straight-A students. They may be B students or even C students.

“But they do very well,” she said. “I know with that work ethic, you will succeed. Let me cultivate that work ethic a little bit.”

That often means knowing where a student stands with basic skills needed in chemistry, which has changed significantly since she started teaching at her alma mater in 2014, particularly in mathematics.

“The students I have now are different than the students I had then,” Lyles said. “You can trace that back to different public education policies in K-12. The question is how we as college professors still get these students to where they need to be.”

Lyles can identify with the challenges her students face. Because she teaches a demographic of students much like her own personal background, she is able to develop examples in class to illustrate concepts, which allows students to relate.

She arrived at S.C. State in 2005 as a legacy student from Columbia. Her parents – Willie and Sarah Lyles – both graduated from S.C. State in the early 1970s and entered education-related fields, too. Her father is a retired high school band director, while her mother is a retired school speech pathologist.

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But Lyles almost wound up at another Historically Black College or University. A phone call to her dad from S.C. State’s band director led to an S.C. State scholarship, however, and she marched all four years with the legendary Marching 101 Band. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Sorority Inc.

After graduating with her chemistry degree in 2009, Lyles headed west to Louisiana State University and earned her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 4½ years. She kept in touch with her mentor at SC State, Dr. Rahina Mahtab, during her graduate studies, leading her back to Orangeburg to teach at SC State.

Along with teaching quantitative analysis and instrumental analysis courses, she conducts research in surface science, studying the interaction of molecules at the surface level. For example, she was part of a team of researchers that studied the influence of certain surface molecules in Alzheimer’s disease.

Among the reasons Lyles was selected as SC State’s overall Professor of the Year was her willingness to embrace remote learning technology after the COVID-19 prompted the university to implement emergency remote instruction in 2020. She helped both the Chemistry Program and the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences operate more efficiently in the online world.

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