Six faculty members receive 2020 Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2020 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.

They are Michael J. Bernstein, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Abington; Timothy Bralower, professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences; Kirk French, associate teaching professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts; MaryEllen Higgins, associate professor of English at Penn State Greater Allegheny; Jessica Petko, assistant professor of biology at Penn State York; and Jill M. Wood, teaching professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in the College of the Liberal Arts.

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

Michael J. Bernstein

Michael Bernstein

Michael Bernstein

Image: Penn State

Bernstein uses his area of expertise -- the importance of belonging to groups and how people react when that belonging is threatened -- to guide his teaching. In an effort to help students succeed, he creates a classroom environment where students feel welcome and a sense that it’s where they belong.

“That success occurs not only in the classroom but beyond,” Bernstein said. “By creating the right situations for success in my class, I can impact their overall educational outlook. I do this by changing the structure of educational spaces so that everyone feels like they belong, takes responsibility for their successes and understands my teaching approach.”

Bernstein said many students have to overcome perceived barriers within themselves in order to be successful in college. For example, he says, first generation students often don’t feel like they belong in college. Racial or ethnic minorities or women in STEM fields might face stereotypes suggesting they aren’t the kind of person to do well in these domains.

This lack of belonging, if left unchecked, could lead to poor learning outcomes, Bernstein said. So he talks to students individually — early and often — to address these issues. He walks students through the things they can do to succeed and lets them know he’s confident they can succeed and do belong in the classroom.

Bernstein said communication is also important. For one class, he said, students see the high volume of exams he gives and immediately think he’s being unreasonable. But when he explains his rationale — that he doesn’t want a single test to have a huge weight on the final grade -- students see the logic. He said this relationship with students makes them feel like they’re part of the learning process.

“I approach the classroom as a place where my decisions and actions have huge impacts on student outcomes,” Bernstein said. “For everything I do, I want students to know why I am doing it so they can succeed and that they indeed belong. By ensuring students and I see the classroom similarly, I can not only facilitate success in my class but across the college.”

Students praised Bernstein’s welcoming approach.

“Within the classroom, Bernstein creates an environment that makes students feel comfortable to ask questions when they are confused, and, more importantly, to answer questions freely even when they might be wrong,” a former student said. “He teaches that it is important to try and without failure we could never succeed.”

Timothy Bralower

Timothy Bralower

Timothy Bralower

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In his 33 years of teaching, Bralower has seen his field of the Earth sciences transformed by issues threatening the sustainability of our planet. His teaching encompasses areas of climate change, sea level rise, energy water and food security and natural hazards. He’s tasked with teaching these concepts to his students while giving the necessary skills to make informed decisions about issues that affect the planet’s future.

To do this, he’s embraced new tools -- such as online education through the Penn State World Campus administered through the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute -- to reach a larger and more diverse pool of students.

“Throughout my career, I’ve been presented with incredible opportunities to communicate critical information in increasingly effective ways to students who have the technical skills to analyze large Earth data sets,” Bralower said. “Thus my teaching has become progressively active, modular, and problem-based, with content that is increasingly centered on Earth challenges and their solutions.”

As Bralower’s career transitioned to a mix of blended and online education he worked with a team of faculty to design an online certificate program in Earth sustainability at Penn State. The centerpiece of this program is the Earth Futures course that addresses climate change’s impact on humans and the planet. It’s offered at University Park, World Campus and six commonwealth campuses.

The Earth Futures course is designed for students to understand the complexity of the Earth system. The blended course is taught through a series of virtual lectures, presentations, problem-solving activities and debates of policy issues. Bralower said students use the lecture material as a starting point for these active-learning experiences.

“Overall, my goal as a professor is to instill in my students vital knowledge, a new way of thinking about their Earth, and, hopefully, the inspiration to make change,” Bralower said. “My materials are designed to challenge but ultimately provide students with the confidence to solve problems. I’m passionate about the Earth and the challenges that climate change presents. The impact will be greater in the lifetimes of my students and thus I hope that the awareness my course provides will equip them with the skills to thrive in a changing Earth.”

Students praised Bralower’s ability to make virtual lectures feel like face-to-face experiences and for his ability to teach the broader picture to the facts-and-figures approach to understanding complex Earth processes.

“Bralower’s enthusiasm and passion throughout the Earth systems course were both inspirational and aspirational,” a former student said. “The testament to his teaching for me lies in how he impacted and changed my life. At home or work, I now make different consumption decisions to ensure I make the planet a better place. I went into the class ignorant about my place in the world around me, how I could impact it both negatively and positively. I’ve finished Bralower’s course with more than facts and figures. He effected change in me as a person and shifted my core beliefs.”

Kirk French

Kirk French

Kirk French

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French remembers when he first learned that college could be a path to lifelong learning. Two teachers — one in philosophy, the other in anthropology — showed him that college wasn’t just a path to a better earning potential. Rather, it could be an enlightening world that’s both exciting and rewarding.

That’s what inspired him to pursue a career as an anthropology educator and put him on a path to helping others understand the power of education.

It’s an easy thing to do in his field, he said, because anthropology is all around us.

“Who is not interested in learning about how strange we are?” French said. “How different, But in the end, how alike? And that truth is what motivates me. Sure, we may look different, worship different gods, speak different languages and have different worldviews. But when we focus on the similarities it often helps us to appreciate the differences.”

French teaches his students that anthropology can be a way of understanding people from different lands or from different places in time, but it can also tell us more about ourselves.

Take the course he created on the anthropology of alcohol, which is one of the most popular on campus. In one assignment, he has students sift through the ruins of tailgating fields nearby Beaver Stadium just hours after a game. Students can use these cues to make determinations on the crowds that gathered there. More inexpensive beers might point to students, while, closer to the stadium, where parking comes at a premium, craft beers and high-end liquors speak to a different crowd. Other lessons, such as what anthropology can tell us about climate change, hazing and sexual assault, are also covered in his courses.

“Humans learn through association, by building on the familiar,” French said. That’s why I decided to focus on something that every culture in the world has a relationship with: alcohol. Everyone has an opinion about alcohol,  especially college students. Making alcohol the central theme of my teaching and research allows me to reach a much wider audience. I want to share with them my passion for an area of study that can have a monumental impact on the way one sees the world, as it did for me.”

Students praised his offbeat but effective teaching methods.

“Dr. French has found a way to open doors in the field of anthropology to a wide audience,” a student said. “He has found a way to encourage students of all backgrounds and majors to explore the world around them, and it is inspiring to see how many people at Penn State have begun to admire the field of anthropology through his work.”

French wants his students to know that anthropology isn’t just about ancient burial grounds, temples and arrowheads. Everything we find can tell us a story.

“When a student leaves my classroom, I simply want them to have a healthier appreciation for different cultures, and an increased respect for others and a stronger sense of self,” French said. “Then hopefully they too will teach others, even if it is only by example.”

MaryEllen Higgins

MaryEllen Higgins

MaryEllen Higgins

Image: Penn State

Higgins often asks her students to write about the pivotal moments that shaped their lives. For her, it was when she was an undergraduate student and one of her professors said he considered her as someone who could pursue academia.

That moment that elevated her into the person she became is something that inspires her to do the same.

“Today, one of the greatest rewards for me, as an educator, is to see my students rise proudly to challenging occasions, to invest in their intellects and to regard themselves as serious thinkers,” Higgins said. “In every assignment, and in every class discussion, I dedicate my attention to recognizing the intellectual energy of my students.”

Through scholarly works, creative writing, poetic reflections of cinema and personal interactions, Higgins said she asks her students to find inspiration and to grow as writers and as people. She finds these writing opportunities allow her students to grow within themselves and to make connections with others.

In her social justice and image course, which she designed, she tasks students with connecting their work with that of international artists, scholarly theories about justice and the work of their peers. The result, according to students, is that students grow as writers while learning new experiences from fellow classmates.

In embedded study trips abroad, Higgins emphasizes the importance of engaging meaningfully with people in the countries where students travel and study. In her embedded study trip to Vietnam, students from the U.S. worked alongside students from Vietnam, and together they discussed short stories from American and Vietnamese authors about the Vietnam War.

“They compared and contrasted how narratives of how the war in Vietnam affected them personally, and then bonded over how devastating it would be to be at war with each other,” Higgins said.

Students said Higgins is a gifted educator and see her as someone who reaches out to them as individuals and cares about their experiences.

“Higgins was not only influential to me as a student but also to many across campus,” a former student said. “She truly saw each of her students as individuals and helped us to grow both professionally and emotionally. We were empowered to see not just who we were, but who we could someday become. The knowledge she instilled in me and her friendship continue to be some of the best things about my experience at Penn State.”

Jessica Petko

Jessica Petko

Jessica Petko

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A glance at the wording on Petko’s wristband will tell you her views on being an educator: “Aspire to inspire.”

To do that, she says, you need to create an environment that fosters curiosity, autonomy and confidence while passing along the information students need to advance as emerging scientists.

Petko said this begins by building relationships with students. As one of three full-time biology faculty on her campus, she said this is made easier by numerous opportunities to see students inside and outside the classroom. Each passes through at least one of her classrooms before graduating. Even before then, it’s likely she’s built a connection through advising sessions, biology club meetings, department picnics, campus events, new student committees, new student orientation and casual discussions, all of which she makes herself available for.

“This helps me better comprehend student perspectives, learning styles, academic strengths and weaknesses and possible attitudes towards the material presented in my classes,” Petko said. “Additionally, this builds a level of trust by which students feel comfortable seeking my help when they have academic problems or need advising help.”

Petko said students learn complicated scientific concepts when those concepts are relevant to them. That’s why she’s always seeking ways to explain the science behind things they see in everyday life.

Take her Siamese kitten. In her molecular biology class students learned the molecular explanation behind the kitten’s pigmentation pattern. In another lesson, students learned about the effect of protein structure on cellular function. It’s seemingly abstract until students learn how the process drives conditions such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. She also opens the course to student questions, sometimes probing into the science behind things in everyday life that puzzle them.

She’s ignited when she sees her upper-level students building on the concepts that they learned in her entry level courses. She said this process is required to advance in a science field and also shows that they’re developing the tools to become lifelong learners. She also urges her students to further hone these skills in the lab or research settings and helps them attain the funding and opportunities to do so.

A former student praised Petko’s approach to education that begins with personal connections, grows throughout the college experience and is further refined through research.

“Dr. Petko’s work with students is remarkable because, as I have seen time and time again, she is extraordinarily persistent in her belief in the capabilities of students,” a former student said. “And Petko’s lab is about so much more than the work itself. It is about nurturing meaningful growth. Many professors will simply have students assist them with research. Petko instead teaches students to be mindful conductors of their own research and investigations, an invaluable skill we will take with us for a lifetime.”

Jill M. Wood

Jill Wood

Jill Wood

Image: Penn State

Wood sees the University as a place that informs change by empowering her students to be agents of social justice. Her courses frequently deal with issues of power, control, oppression and freedom. So, it’s no surprise that the results can be empowering and transformational for students.

Her teaching practice involves three simultaneous practices. First, she creates an accessible learning environment where students feel valued and respected. She wants her students to feel comfortable participating because, she said, it’s an integral part of the learning process.

“Because students expect to participate in both the teaching and the learning process, they arrive prepared for class, bringing their own contributions, experiences, knowledge and belief systems,” Wood said. “In this way, the classroom is a fluid site of knowledge acquisition and production as students -- through newly learned critical thinking and writing skills -- evaluate the implications of new perspectives and knowledge.”

Second, she relies on a variety of avenues such as readings, lectures, discussions, class projects and multimedia to promote the transfer of ideas.

Lastly, she herself becomes the student. About once a month, she asks students for anonymous feedback on the course. That allows her to fine tune the learning process throughout the semester, rather than after the course has ended.

Due to the subject matter, Wood finds many students in her class struggle because of institutionalized forms of oppression, lack of privilege and disenfranchisement. To combat this, she uses a feminist ethics of care and a pedogogy of empathy. This means that the strengths of the student are considered and that lessons are tailored to their personal experiences.

“Teaching is an intricate balance between practice and praxis, and I consider the charge to teach very seriously given the profound possibilities that education holds for students, their lives and all of our futures,” Wood said.

A former student praised Wood’s ability to bring out the best in each of her students.

“Dr. Wood exceptionally pinpointed how to reach her students, even on the darkest of days, by choosing outstanding course material, employing flexibility when necessary, and cultivating a sense of collaboration between her and her students,” the former student said. “Through her teaching, Wood instilled in us that our personal experiences -- which were so often dismissed or ignored as unimportant – were, in fact, political and deserving of our attention, study and collective action.”