Six faculty members receive Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2013 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching. They are Charles Elavsky, assistant professor of communications in the College of Communications; Mikhail Kagan, assistant professor of physics at Penn State Abington; Kathy Meehan, senior instructor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine; Debra Miller, instructor of social sciences and education at Penn State Lehigh Valley; Cindy Parsons, senior lecturer of mathematics in the Eberly College of Science, and Peter Wilf, associate professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

The award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.

Teaching 400-level conceptual classes, a large-enrollment general-education course and a first-year seminar, Elavsky earns ratings by students that are “nothing short of spectacular,” a nominator said. “Since Day One, he has held students spellbound.” Elavsky believes “the most rewarding educational strategies seek to effectively link the students’ understandings, experiences and interests to considerations of larger questions beyond the classroom, illuminating how the students themselves are implicated in those concerns.” He has used a variety of social media and innovative pedagogical strategies to enhance student engagement in and out of class, giving students the opportunity to engage with peers “in ways that are atypical in large-enrollment classes,” according to one nominator.

Kagan said teaching has been his “passion” for almost half his life. While an undergraduate, he taught at a middle and high school until he moved to Penn State Abington for a doctoral program in 2008 and became a teaching assistant and lecturer. Two years later, he started implementing the ISLE (investigative science learning environment) curriculum and philosophy in his physics classes. “I see my aim, as a teacher, to excite my students’ enthusiasm for scientific discovery, to make them eager to learn and explore, and to be there for them when they need friendly guidance from someone as curious as they are,” he said. One student wrote, “Dr. Kagan not only helped me overcome my fear of physics; he also helped me find my true passion.” Outside of the classroom, he has developed a series of game show-like competitions called “Fysics is Phun,” “Kemistry is Chool” and “Biology is the Bomb” for science and engineering students.

Meehan said she bases her teaching philosophy on the comment of a student, following a class presentation on children who have died from abuse, that “you make me big enough to change things.” To help students “become big,” Meehan said she emphasizes critical thinking and development of a personal framework of ethics, values and theory. As campus field coordinator for human development and family studies, she “does it all,” one nominator wrote — “prepare and motivate, assist with application and selecting process, monitor, supervise and support students.” A colleague noted, “Her efforts have helped us all find the best ways to excite our students and involve them in the learning process.”

Miller believes that her role as a teacher of teachers is to “give my students the tools with which to cultivate their own wealth of knowledge.” One student wrote, “Dr. Miller has armed me with strategies and ideas to assure I can make sure all of the children in my classroom are successful.” When Miller realized that pre-service teachers in her classes did not have access to high-quality instructional materials to use in lessons, she worked with campus administration to create and raise funds for a Teacher Resource Center. She also helped establish a campus chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi education honor society. According to one nominator, “Students know that she cares, and as a result, they want to do better.”

As coordinator of first-year calculus classes, Parsons oversees as many as 25 instructors and 75 sections of calculus each semester. “Through this position,” she said, “I have the opportunity to be an advocate for effective teaching and communication.” In 2010, she became an Advanced Placement Calculus exam reader so she could “understand the disconnect” between the AP curriculum and the university curriculum; as a result, she begins each semester demonstrating to students “how to alter their thinking and their work so they can succeed at the university level.” A student said, “Dr. Parsons does such an exceptional job motivating students that they want to do the assigned homework upon leaving class; her students become proactive in pursuing their own education.”

Crediting his mathematician father, several other educators in his family and “many superior teachers,” Wilf said he learned that “good teaching is simply trying everything you can possibly think of to excite students about learning and tirelessly building upon what works best.” One student wrote, “Dr. Wilf not only created a classroom environment of caring and learning; he transmitted passion.” Wilf developed and teaches the Geosciences Scholarship class, which teaches undergraduates how to read and critique scientific articles, abilities that are “monumental in the development of a young scientist,” according to a nominator. He also introduced an annual field trip to the Denver area, where he says geobiology students “experience directly the entire history of Earth and life in the area.”