2009-10 Distinguished Teaching Award Recipients

  
2009-10 Morse-Alumni Award Recipients:

2009-10 Graduate/Professional Award Recipients:

2009-10 Morse Alumni Award Recipients
Scott F. Abernathy
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
College of Liberal Arts
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“The aspect of my teaching that I am most proud of…is having played a role in the important policy and social service work that many of my former students are now doing all around the country. Though I would not lay any claim to their motivation to do good work in the world, perhaps I have helped make that possibility more concrete.”


Scott Abernathy’s first experience as a teacher was an internship as a reading tutor at a high-security juvenile facility in New Hampshire. After college, he went on to work as a street counselor for homeless teenagers in Boston, and later as a public school teacher.

“This work…taught me that the context in which education takes place can either unleash or suppress their (students) spirits,” says Abernathy.

And so Abernathy committed himself to education reform. He pursued advanced degrees in domestic policy and then political science, receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton. At the U, he has developed a teaching style focused on individuals, resulting in an intensely personal experience for students.

One former student says Abernathy “is the one professor that I will look back upon in the future and be able to say, ‘it was in his class where I realized on which foot I wanted my future to start.’”

“Hardly any of his students come into his classes with an education career in mind,” says a department colleague. But whether through emotional intensity or simply his own depth of experiences, Abernathy provokes a change in direction among students.

It’s hard to predict where an education will lead, but the best teachers open doors where doors were not known to exist. Even Abernathy isn’t where he thought he would be on the eve of his career, and yet, here he is. And now, his students are knocking.

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David A Blank
Associate Professor Department of Chemistry
College of Science and Engineering (formerly Institute of Technology)
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“I enjoy the most…when [undergraduates] are struggling with a challenging concept, losing patience and confidence, and suddenly…there appears an involuntary grin from ear to ear. They have it.”

Thermodynamics and quantum mechanics lie at the intersection of chemistry and physics. These two difficult, mathematically oriented subjects are the part of the chemistry curriculum most dreaded by undergraduates nationwide. Since he started teaching at the University of Minnesota nearly 10 years ago, Professor David Blank has focused on these subjects.

His students’ comments have been consistently and remarkably positive. They draw inspiration and confidence from Blank even though he demands the highest level of rigor. One undergraduate says, “He’ll have you excited about partition functions…even if you don’t quite yet grasp what they are exactly.” Another recalls, “He treated me as an intellectual equal, and it has given me confidence in my academic endeavors.”

He has, in the words of a colleague, “the unusual ability to cut to the essence of a topic and distill it down into a form that is palatable.” Blank’s novel teaching methods include an offer to do pushups if caught in blackboard errors, a “muddiest point” comment box, and in-class experiments such as “the screaming gummy bear.”

He has mentored many research undergraduates, involving them in complex laser experiments for processes that last less than a trillionth of a second. A former student who is now a scientist says, “I am constantly reminded how much more prepared I was for my professional career because of my research experience with Professor Blank.”

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Kent C. Kirkby
Assistant Professor
Department of Geology and Geophysics
College of Science and Engineering (formerly Institute of Technology)
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“Some [students] have struggled just to pass, while others earned Fulbright and Rhodes Scholarships, and I could not tell you which have impressed me more. In the end, I have learned far more from them than I have taught them, and it is an honor to have shared a classroom with these students.”

Kent Kirkby is a professor who goes above and beyond when teaching his geology courses. His passion for science, as well as his desire to teach, has drawn praise from faculty and students alike across campus. “Kent embodies all the rare and wonderful characteristics one hopes to find in a professor,” a former student says. “Had I taken my first class from him during my freshman or sophomore year, I would have pursued a geology minor.”

Along with being an outstanding professor, Kirkby has made great strides in science. With a colleague, Kirkby pioneered the use of the Geowall--a 3-D, stereo projection mapping system that can be used in the classroom to help earth science students master the critical skills of visualizing and interpreting spatial relationships--and has been part of an initiative to build the systems at a number of research and education institutions. In addition, Kirkby has revised and created intriguing labs for his students.

Kirkby captures student interest through storytelling and has the ability to create a comfortable environment where students are never scolded for asking “Why?” Another former student says, “Making geology interesting and relevant to a hectic world is a gift; I can honestly say I wouldn’t be so interested in the subject today if not for Kirkby.”

From the advances he’s made within the U’s science programs, to his gift for bringing life and intrigue into his classroom, all would agree with a former student who states, “He is beyond any doubt, an outstanding educator and worthy of this award.”

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Gwen L. Rudney
Professor and Chair
Division of Education
University of Minnesota, Morris


“… [Still,] I retain that love and respect for teaching. It is what I know, value, and study. It is what I teach. My main goal is to prepare my students to be excellent teachers. Working to achieve this goal is demanding, satisfying, and sometimes frightening. I must ‘practice what I preach.’”

Among the many plaudits directed at Gwen Rudney, two in particular stand out: her respect and concern for each student, and the fact that her lessons remain engrained in students’ minds long after they graduate. Passionate and dedicated, inspired and inspiring, Rudney is praised by colleagues and students as a truly gifted teacher of teachers.

Her teaching philosophy revolves around three concepts--efficacy, engagement, and collaboration--and she makes sure her students internalize them. Says one former student: “She encouraged us to apply everything we learned and, through dialogue and reflection, to learn from everything we did.”

Rudney is also a caring and prolific mentor. With advising loads of 40 or more students, she still goes out of her way--and often outside the campus walls--to lend an ear for academic or personal concerns. She nudges them to step outside their comfort zones and not be afraid to fail. Moreover, she’s been known to mentor and challenge her protégés even after graduation.

Her leadership in her field is extensive, and she uses the findings from her research on teacher development and parent-teacher relationships to improve the teacher education program at Morris.

But her greatest gift may be the impact she has on the future generation of teachers. “I always felt as though I needed to soak up as much information from Dr. Rudney as I could,” says one alum, “which I would say is one of the best indicators of an outstanding teacher.”

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Julie Schumacher
Professor of English and Creative Writing
Department of English
College of Liberal Arts
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“… I often confront the idea…that ‘creative writing cannot be taught.’ My counterargument: talent cannot be created by a teacher of any subject--from mathematics to modern dance. Technique and discernment and prowess, however, can be vastly enhanced, and a student who learns to express original ideas in fluent prose has gained a skill of enormous value to any discipline.”

There is a certain immortality in any published work--a life beyond the author’s own that lives on in the lives of readers. A teacher’s work is the same, and while it can be hard to measure the effect one’s life has had on another’s, by all accounts, Julie Schumacher is effective.

Among her many accomplishments, Schumacher served as director of the creative writing program during its dramatic rise in national rankings to one of the nation’s top 10, she redesigned the Introduction to Creative Writing course to great success, and she developed one of the most distinguished guest-lecture series at the University.

Students rave about her ability to bring out the best in their writing, and to help them learn something deep about themselves. “She helped me delve into difficult questions of family, home, culture, and belonging,” says a former student of her thesis work. “I believe that the intersection between rigorous intellectual pursuits and a greater understanding of self and our place in the world leads to the most poignant learning. Professor Schumacher helped me find this place.”

Her colleagues speak of her with no less admiration. One, a well-known author in her own right, says, “Julie is not simply admired by her students--she’s beloved. Students know that she takes them seriously, that they can--they must--write truly for her. This is a great gift, and it goes beyond writing fiction, straight to the heart of writing and thinking truly.”

That is an education that lives on in the lives of others.

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Paul Siliciano
Associate Professor
Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics
College of Biological Sciences
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“I still remember the thrill I felt when I was assigned the first course that was truly mine to develop and teach…. At 7:45 [a.m.], the room was filled with students,…notebooks open, pencils in hand,…leaning forward in their chairs as if to say, ‘I’m here to learn, teach me!’ The exhilaration I felt at that moment still motivates me.”

Students often find biochemistry hard, but with Paul Siliciano, they also find it exciting. “…Dr. Siliciano uses humor, examples, and, most importantly, enthusiasm to keep his students engaged,” says one student, adding, “…the result is a professor who can make even the most complicated of subjects…easily graspable.”

A natural in the role of director of undergraduate studies, Siliciano never misses a chance to help students. He organized a successful effort to cut textbook costs and makes a point of personally advising students with low GPAs.


Freshmen in his seminar for minority students learned everything from how to study to how to find a research position and ended up with GPAs a full point above those of their peers. In another course, he had students learn by reviewing each other’s papers.

Siliciano also launched a course to teach technologies that undergraduates seldom learn but are key to landing positions in industry, and he has brought biochemistry to nonscientists through a course on human health and disease, covering topics like AIDS, obesity and diabetes, and sports-enhancing drugs.

Perhaps the most telling experience comes from an Asian student who struggled with both English and the language of science. She credits Siliciano’s strong encouragement for helping her through a tough major and two rejections from medical schools. Even then he told her to keep trying and wrote more letters of recommendation. On the third try, she made it.

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2009-10 Graduate/Professional Award Recipients
Linda Holm Bearinger
Professor and Director of the Center for Adolescent Nursing
School of Nursing and Medical School
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“In my teaching, I strive to innovate pedagogy, promote learner engagement, and pursue diverse means for mentoring and enriching my students--all with the understanding that the fruits of these efforts may be apparent years in the future.”

Adolescent health nursing professor Linda Bearinger works diligently to connect her students with opportunities for their growth and professional development. She involves them in her research and scholarship, and, in fact, more than 80 percent of her publications have one or more students as authors.

Her influence also reaches beyond the U. One former student notes that Bearinger “is the nation’s foremost developer of interdisciplinary curricular and leadership training in adolescent nursing.” A colleague remarks, “Her pioneering leadership in adolescent health, nationally and internationally, has broken new ground and set new standards in…postbaccalaureate, graduate, and professional education.

Despite this national reputation, one student describes Bearinger as “an engaging and naturally talented teacher, using innovative teaching techniques to enable students to explore issues that are often challenging personally and professionally.”

Adds another, “Lyn’s teaching style utilizes her intuitive gift for first reading her students, then customizing the way she presents material based on the needs and energy of her learners. Now, after years of my own teaching experience, there is not one lecture that goes by that I don’t include at least one teaching or presentation skill learned from Lyn.”

“It is one thing to get high marks in student evaluations immediately after a course or seminar,” a colleague points out, “but to leave an indelible mark is the sign of a brilliant teacher. Lyn is a brilliant teacher.”

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Alvin J. Beitz
Professor
Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“Excellence in instruction depends on…an ability to create a critical learning environment, an ability to challenge students’ preconceived assumptions, a willingness to incorporate innovative approaches into one’s teaching armamentarium, and a deep passion for the subject being taught.”

Alvin Beitz (Ph.D. ’76) learned the hard way what kind of a teacher he did not want to be. “As an undergraduate student I experienced on a daily basis a professor who stood in front of the class reading his lecture word by word from index cards without looking even once at students. This memory served as my inspiration…” Beitz says.

That inspiration has benefitted hundreds of students of the College of Veterinary Medicine, where Beitz has taught since 1982. A prodigious scholar of neuroscience and anatomy, Beitz exudes the same enthusiasm for engaging students as he does for conducting research. He has served as the major adviser for 10 Ph.D., 6 master’s degree, and 13 post-doctoral students, and on more than 70 examining committees.

Says a former student who is now a research scientist, “Al has a unique understanding of the mentoring process. He knows when to afford a student enough leeway to make the necessary mistakes that will teach the scientific process of trial and error,…always striking a delicate balance [that allows] experience and self confidence to form within the young investigator.”


As a senior faculty member, Beitz demonstrates the same devotion to his younger colleagues as he does to his students by mentoring them and participating in peer review. A colleague calls him “a wonderful

collegiate citizen” and notes, “He is a highly ethical individual who always places the integrity, the good of the college, as his first priority.”

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Kang Ling James
Professor
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
Swenson College of Science and Engineering
University of Minnesota, Duluth


“During my 20 years at UMD, I have advised or co-advised over 45 graduate students…. They are all doing well, and many of them become my good friends. This is the most rewarding part about being a teacher.”

For Kang James, being a professor goes well beyond teaching. Advising and mentoring are two of James main focal points when directing and working with her students.

This approach has led many of her students into Ph.D. programs at universities with superb standing. As one former student says, “Her confidence in my abilities instilled confidence in myself and helped me reach my potential…. She was attuned with what is needed to succeed in the corporate, as well as the academic, world.”

James pays close attention to the needs of her students, making sure the material she provides them is presented in a relevant manner that motivates the students to learn. A former student and current biostatistics professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York states, “Kang has the ability of making a difficult concept easy to understand and interesting to learn. She has the best notes in school: I still keep them with me.”

With her superior teaching and mentoring skills, Dr. James seems to have acquired the gift to help her students excel not only within the classroom but also beyond. She advises her students emulating the kindness and generosity once shown to her by one of her own professors.


As another former student notes, “We fondly referred to Dr. James as our ‘mother’ in the department. On several occasions, I sought her advice about things happening in my life… which I will be forever grateful for.”

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Ruth Mazo Karras
Professor
Department of History
Director of the Center for Medieval Studies
College of Liberal Arts
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“I have excellent rapport with my advisees, but I also drive them fairly hard…. They are not disciples but independent scholars whom it is my job to encourage.”

The specter of a dissertation defense and a job hunt may strike fear in the hearts of graduate students, but Ruth Karras dispenses the best antidote.

One of the great Medieval social historians of her generation, Karras keeps her graduate students on course through biweekly sessions where they discuss progress and problems, share research and writings, and generally give each other the practice and feedback that all but guarantees a successful dissertation defense or job search. She also encourages her students to use new teaching technologies and write lectures and research proposals, just as history professors do. In short, they live the lives of scholars from day one.

And she never sends them into the world unprepared.

“…Ruth met periodically with her advisees to show us examples of documents in Latin, Middle English, and Old French, in the original hand of the scribe, to teach us how to read the documents we would encounter in the archives when we undertook our own research,” says one former graduate student. “These sessions…proved precious when I began to read London wills in fourteenth-century Latin script.”

Other history graduate students also have reaped the benefits of her work. For example, while director of graduate studies, Karras implemented a program to guarantee five years of funding coupled with more intense advising. In less than a decade, the percentage of students reaching the dissertation phase of study rose from 27 to 90.

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Joseph A. Konstan
Distinguished McKnight University Professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering
College of Science and Engineering (formerly Institute of Technology)
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“This is a university that highly values graduate and professional education, and I aspire to live up to that value…. I feel fortunate to have been able to direct [my] talent towards the important task of making life better for graduate students, and for faculty as well….”

Joe Konstan is so well known for his work in recommender systems and the collaborative filtering mechanisms computers use to tell us, for example, what books we might like next on Amazon.com that a former student says, “Joe ‘owns’ the field of collaborative filtering.” A colleague points out that Konstan easily could have pursued a career in research or industry.

Instead, he chose to share how technology can enhance human potential. Konstan believes in using research as an opportunity to teach, and sees interaction with students as his focus and his reward.

At the U, he’s introduced systems design grounded in human factors and psychology; cocreated courses on user interface design and technology, and collaborative and social computing; and codeveloped an interdisciplinary public health course in which cross-disciplinary teams design and develop online public health interventions.

Konstan has also been director of graduate studies for computer science and software engineering, crafted a M.S. degree in software engineering, kept an eye out for students’ needs while serving on the Faculty Senate, and recruited more diverse faculty and students from industry and nontraditional and international populations.

His students learn through what one calls “a novel kind of coursework,” exploring psychology and ergonomics using metaphors and games. “I remember getting excited about the computer science that could make the lives of end users easier, richer, and more productive.”

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Rory P. Remmel
Professor
Department of Medicinal Chemistry
College of Pharmacy
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“I believe that people are drawn to teaching because they love to learn. It strikes me that teaching is in itself a kind of vicarious joy in learning…. I know that you don’t always remember what a teacher tells you, or everything they did. But you do always remember how it made you feel when they believed in you and challenged you to excel.”

Despite the fact that they consider his courses some of the toughest in pharmacy school, students have named Rory Remmel teacher of the year six times. “There is no better indication of the value students place on Professor Remmel,” says a colleague.

Well-known for his research on infectious disease therapy and innovative methods of measuring drug metabolism and how aging and genetic variation affect it, Remmel is just as well known for his courses. They take a patient-centered approach to pharmacotherapy, using real-life examples to teach students to think more deeply and critically about treatment options, rather than just about how drugs work.

Outside the classroom, he advised the pharmaceutical student fraternity for 18 years, helping them present STD prevention workshops to high schools, run a diabetes expo, host a camp for kids with asthma, and provide pharmacy services at a free clinic for the uninsured.

“Rory has a gift of perceiving the key talents of his graduate students and the wisdom to act on that perception in guiding [them] into a career path that utilizes those talents,” says another colleague.

A former student points out that Remmel puts a heavy grading burden on himself because of his belief in case-based exams and group-written term papers. However, the approach mimics real life, as another points out: “There usually isn’t a multiple-choice answer when making a clinical decision.”

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J. Ilja Siepmann
Distinguished McKnight University Professor
Department of Chemistry
College of Science and Engineering (formerly Institute of Technology)
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“One is simultaneously faced with the responsibilities as an adviser to ensure excellent research progress and as a mentor to foster, but not steer, the development of bright young people…. To the extent that I have contributed to their success, I consider this to be my greatest and most profound achievement as a faculty member.”

J. Ilja Siepmann takes great pride in his students. From his excellent instruction and development of graduate programs to his involvement of students in research, scholarships, and professional development to his superior mentoring skills, Siepmann is far from being “just” a professor.

Siepmann has a range of experience. From lecturing at UNESCO workshops in Italy to a summer school in Finland, Siepmann bestows much knowledge in his field of chemistry. This is reflected in his ability to create research groups that intrigue and push students. As a former student says, “Ilja’s dedication to his students is unwavering. One of his many strengths is recognizing the capabilities of his students and encouraging them to push their limits.”


His outstanding knowledge in the field of chemistry and his ability to teach it in an intriguing way has helped Siepmann make advances in graduate programs as well. These advances have greatly benefited students, such as new procedures for Ph.D. students to earn an M.S. along the way and new common rules for preliminary exams.

Siepmann is also recognized as a skillful mentor. Another former student states, “His guidance and insistence on provocative and important research questions, careful and appropriate methods, and cogent reporting not only assisted me in my dissertation research but also helped me in my professional development.”

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Robert L. Sorenson
Professor
Department of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development
Medical School
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


“Whatever success I have achieved, much is owed to my students and colleagues. Seeing the new awareness and confidence in students that comes from acquiring new knowledge is a constant inspiration.”

In his 40 years of teaching Human Histology, Bob Sorenson (Ph.D. ’67) has taught more than 8,000 medical and dental students the underpinning of modern medicine--the types, structures, and functions of the cells that form the human body’s tissues and organs.

Remembered fondly by one former student as “the glacier of Nordic Intellect,” Sorenson has subsequently become a beloved colleague to many others, among them the dean of a certain college of biological sciences. “He is in the fullest sense,” says that dean, “my academic father.”

Many former students recall gathering with faculty around the lunch table in Sorenson’s lab and gradually gaining courage to participate in discussions on scholarship, criticism, and academic integrity. “Without knowing it,” says one, “[he] pushed and expanded [our] horizons…. He broke down our illusion of boundaries between disciplines.”

All the while, Sorenson has been a nationally-funded researcher in the field of islet biology, diabetes, and the dynamics of pregnancy and glucose metabolism; an international innovator in microscopy techniques that have enabled research; and the creator of enhanced teaching resources such as the Virtual Microscopy, a digital database of high resolution histology slides.

“Individual professors make a difference…and a community….” says a former student. “There are no metrics…to quantify the kind of contributions Bob has provided the University for decades.”

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