UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2019 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.
They are: Andrew Baxter, associate teaching professor in the Eberly College of Science; Jacqueline Bortiatynski, associate teaching professor in the Eberly College of Science; Liliana Naydan, assistant professor of English at Penn State Abington; Sarah K. Rich, associate professor in the College of Arts and Architecture; John Roth, professor of engineering at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College; and Jennifer Zosh, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine.
The award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.
Baxter aims to create a classroom environment where students play a key role in the learning process and discussion.
“A teacher’s actions at the front of a classroom matter only insofar as they impact students’ minds,” Baxter said. “This philosophy forces that change of perspective. Rather than ask ‘how should I explain a topic,’ I ask ‘how does the student learn this idea.’ With this in mind, I plan each element of a course from the perspective of the desired outcomes, and what student experiences would best produce those outcomes.”
He describes his role as teacher as creating experiences that promote learning, rather than just explaining to the class.
“Dr. Baxter values learning over deadlines and grades, believing that every student can succeed if given the chance to,” one of his students said. “He cares most about his student’s comfort with the material. He will go out of his way spending extra time checking on his students’ progress and to make class interesting, using relevant and funny scenarios that make the method stick out.”
As an associate teaching professor in the math department at University Park, Baxter pushes himself and colleagues to grow as an educator. In all he has worked with math teachers in some form at almost every level.
As the director of the Pennsylvania Math Initiative he works with elementary school teachers, offering workshops in collaboration with math education faculty. He teaches courses for secondary education majors and undergraduate learning assistants, as well as helps to prepare math graduate students to act as teaching assistants.
He also runs the teaching seminar for the math department, hosting weekly speakers who talk on various topics connected to undergraduate education.
He’s a member of a group which has received a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant that looks to improve the success of change of campus students in science fields. He’s responsible for expanding effective calculus curriculum materials and teaching methodology to commonwealth campuses.
Bortiatynski, who teaches chemistry, said coaching students to become self-directed learners is the central focus of her teaching. She knows STEM courses can be challenging, so she creates an environment that encourages curiosity, creativity and confidence-building.
“I feel it’s extremely important to help students practice effective learning strategies to become self-directed learners," Bortiatynski said. “Without these skills, students find it difficult to meet the challenges that lie ahead and never learn how to apply what they have learned to real-world problems. My role as a learning coach is to work with my team as a learning community. We learn together through the practice of effective strategies, motivating each other and continuous feedback.”
She wants her students to ask the “how” and “why” questions related to science, which she said helps students make connections between key concepts.
Students praised Bortiatynski’s teaching methods and her individualized approach to the learning process. One even cited the way she begins each class inviting students to share their “triumphs and tragedies” as an inviting approach to learning.
“Bortiatynski’s teaching style gives insight about the course material while creating a welcoming environment in which our class can discuss that material,” a student said. “Her class teaches the skills necessary to not only be a better science student but a better person in the scientific community.”
Bortiatynski is director of the Center for Excellence in Science Education at Penn State. The center’s mission is to provide faculty and students with a collaborative educational network that promotes excellence in science teaching and learning. That’s accomplished through a variety of instructional development activities for faculty and students interested in science teaching.
Bortiatynski co-developed a Learning Assistant Program that has trained more than 750 undergraduates as learning facilitators and trained more than two dozen of the college’s faculty members. The program encompasses a group of faculty and motivated students who all have the common goal of enhancing the learning experience in science and math classes. Bortiatynski is also a member of the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee in ECoS.
As a teacher of English, Naydan works to create dynamic classrooms in which diverse groups of students can find community, engage in active-learning experiences and achieve success through collaboration with her and their peers.
“My objective in all of my courses is for my students to feel challenged and supported as they develop identities as responsible citizens invested in understanding and creating positive change in their communities,” Naydan said.
Naydan tasks her students with exploring a wide range of authors and topics. She also asks them to try their hand at different genres in their own writing. Students even venture into visual storytelling through the use of video.
“I enjoy teaching because I love to learn from my students, to think about their ideas, experiences and goals, and to use their feedback to think through new approaches to engaging them in meaningful work,” Naydan said. “I hope my students use my courses as springboards for developing as writers, thinkers and learners throughout their lives.”
Naydan’s colleagues praised her exceptional teaching and enthusiastic mentorship.
“Distinguishing aspects of Naydan’s teaching include her zeal for student success and openness to new ideas and perspectives,” a nominator said. “Naydan does not feign expert knowledge or hold unwavering viewpoints. Instead, she welcomes dialogue and engages and thoughtful discussion with her students.”
Naydan is always encouraging her students to write with the goal of making a difference in the world and to share their writing. She had students present their work at the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Writing Centers Association Conference. She also designed the Abington Writing Fellowship Program, which prepares undergraduates from different disciplines to tutor first-year writers, and she organizes campus events such as The National Day on Writing, where students again are encouraged to participate.
Sarah K. Rich
Rich, who teaches art history, said she gave her first lecture in fifth grade and was hooked ever since. Speaking to her then peers, using diagrams and dialog, she discussed the physiology and domestic habits of hobbits.
These days, the J.R.R Tolkien fan says she’s more interested in abstract paintings of the Cold War than the inhabitants of Middle Earth, but that she’s still happiest in the classroom.
Her creative ways to teach art history include sending students on scavenger hunts for objects related to the topic at hand or creating pigments from 15th-century recipes. While teaching about historic architecture, she invites students to look at campus buildings inspired by different periods.
Rich said a teacher’s first task — especially in undergraduate level courses — is to convey the pleasure of learning about the course material. She shows them that a life steered by curiosity leads to adventure and a more productive connection with the world.
“Teaching, especially in the humanities, should demonstrate a way of looking at the world that is directed by questions, rather than by easy answers, and it should encourage a mode of dwelling that is steeped in wonder, rather than fear of the unknown,” Rich said.
Students praised both Rich’s innovative teaching methods and her interesting course topics such as one focusing on art and money.
“She addresses current issues of valuing artwork, commerce in the related financial realities of the art world,” a student said. “She invited guest speakers on philanthropy and fundraising and she was forthright about the challenges of commercializing art. I have studied art and art history throughout high school and college and I have never even considered the topics that Dr. Rich presented during that class.”
Colleagues also praised her unique approaches to teaching and her courses.
“Dr. Rich is best known in our college by her undergraduate art criticism courses like “Taste and Criticism” and “Art Since You Were Born” or her newly minted interdomain course that combines subject matter from outside fields,” a colleague said. “In the criticism courses she is very skilled in setting up topics for debate, providing room for all the students, including more reticent students to actively contribute.”
Roth, who teaches mechanical engineering, said the field moves too quickly to simply teach students how to become engineers. When useful technical specifications change within a few years, he said it’s important to teach students to become lifelong learners. He equips students with the skills to search and assess facts on their own.
“Today’s educators must evolve away from providing facts to be memorized and towards being conveyors of problem-solving approaches and logistical skills,” Roth said. “Underlying general principles must also be conveyed so that, as new problems arise, the students can ascertain if the approach needs to be adjusted.”
Roth has applied this method to upper-level courses and has worked to bring the approach more broadly to the mechanical engineering field. To do this, he created a set of guidelines and examples that could be used for the education and evaluation of the nonquantitative aspects of engineering problems that faculty can use in the classroom. He also designed measures for evaluating student performance that ensure students gain a more complete understanding of how their knowledge base can be used to solve real-world problems.
One of Roth’s former students said Roth gave him the tools and the confidence he needed to continue research at the graduate level.
“The biggest thing I feel he taught me in my research was to be confident in my work,” the former student said. “When we would go to conferences and give presentations to graduate students and other professors, he would not take over. He would allow us to make the presentation, answer questions and defend our work. He let us be the experts. This involved failing, learning, trying again and ultimately succeeding.”
Colleagues praised Roth’s approach to teaching. They said he values technical discussions over lectures.
“He requires his students to explain why they believe something to be true and makes them demonstrate that they understand the material, not just be able to solve problems,” a colleague said. “In engineering, it is easy to focus on problem-solving rather than understanding, and John is able to engage students in both.”
Zosh, who teaches human development and family studies and psychology courses, said “spark” and “connection” are two words that drive her teaching. She relies on the spark of insight that happens inside and outside of the classroom when she’s done her job effectively and the sense of connection she finds so important in helping her students succeed.
When she became an educator, Zosh knew two things: she wanted to chase the spark of insight that inspired her to study learning in her research, and she wanted to connect with and transform the lives of her students.
Zosh does this in several ways. She chaired The Brandywine Experience, which created a holistic approach to support student development in academic, personal, professional and civic domains. Early benchmarks suggest the program has been very successful at creating a curriculum that gives students a high-quality educational experience that prepares them for 21st-century challenges. In her laboratory, the Brandywine Child Development Lab, she works with students to make new discoveries about cognitive development and how technology impacts childhood.
“Jennifer’s contributions to teaching extend far beyond her classes and interactions with students,” a colleague said. “Across Brandywine’s campus, Jennifer is looked to as a leader in regards to undergraduate teaching.”
Zosh uses a “minds on” approach and asks students to engage intellectually with course material rather than be passive recipients of information. She accomplishes this through varied experiences in and out of the classroom. For lower-level courses, she uses class assignments related to real-world challenges facing today's children and families. For upper-level courses, students lead discussions based on current research in the field and examine the intersection of research and application. In her lab, she mentors students to conduct independent projects investigating new questions about child development and technology.
“Spark and connection continue to drive my work in the lab and the classroom,” Zosh said.
A former student praised Zosh’s ability to inspire her to find her own identity as a researcher.
“During my time working with her in her research lab, she helped me discover my passion for research,” the student said. “She encouraged me to ask questions and think critically but also to think creatively. She made research an adventure in which I had the opportunity to ask questions that no one had ever asked about how children learn about the world. Through that journey, she helped me home my individual research skills.”