UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2021 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.
They are Julia Kregenow, associate teaching professor of astronomy and astrophysics in Eberly College of Science; Andrew Mowen, professor of recreation, park and tourism management in the College of Health and Human Development; Mary Napoli, associate professor of reading at Penn State Harrisburg; Marietta Scanlon, associate teaching professor of engineering at Penn State Berks; Sven Schmitz, associate professor of aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering; and Johnathan White, assistant teaching professor of history at Penn State Greater Allegheny.
The award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.
Kregenow knows that many of her students are undergraduate nonscience majors fulfilling a general education requirement, so she tailors those courses so that students can get the most out of the experience while taking home lifelong skills about science that can be applied to any career.
To accomplish this, she has three main objectives.
She wants to demystify math and science. If students leave her course with a positive attitude about the subjects, they won’t fear, mistrust or shy away from those topics when they encounter them in real life.
She favors quantitative reasoning over arithmetic. She said this will most likely be the last time many of her students are formally exposed to quantitative science. So she wants to help them to build a foundation of science literacy, and develop an appreciation for (or at least a comfort level with) the topic.
“I want my students to become more informed consumers of technical information because they will see more and more of it throughout their lifetimes,” Kregenow said.
Lastly, she wants them to understand the scientific process. If her students leave knowing that science involves gathering evidence, making predictions and systematically testing those predictions, they’ll build and maintain scientific literacy. And they’ll use these lifelong skills to spot the difference between pseudoscience and actual science.
Kregenow said it’s important to understand that “our students aren’t us.” Most of them won’t be seeking doctorates in STEM fields, she said, therefore their motivation, priorities and interests aren’t the same as hers. Knowing this, she said, tells her that her students won’t necessarily respond to the same motivators and teaching tools as she did in college.
She also knows that students’ minds aren’t blank slates.
“My students have a lifetime of experiences and preconceived notions — indeed sometimes misconceptions — about how the world works,” Kregenow said. “Learning cannot be just a one-way transfer of information: I must elicit and lead them to consciously address their prior ideas, so that they can incorporate new knowledge onto that already crowded mental canvas.”
Kregenow wants to challenge her students — too little and the class becomes boring — but too much and students become overwhelmed, ultimately learning less in the process. Kregenow said if she races through 20 topics in a semester and students retain just three, she knows she’s failed. But if she covers 10 and students retain eight at the deep level, she knows she’s succeeded.
Students praised Kregenow’s passion for astronomy and for relying on her energy and excitement to ignite their passion for learning.
“Kregenow’s passion for astronomy radiates every day during class. She relates course material to real world situations, utilizes visuals and animations to help her students understand topics more clearly and starts out each class period with a playlist of lesson-themed songs to welcome students,” a student said. “She cares about the well-being of every student, and even takes extra time to address how to get the most out of our college experience by having the right mindset and utilizing the right learning strategies. She is relatable, funny and understanding of her students’ needs and struggles. She goes above and beyond to help students excel in and out of the classroom. She makes me excited to come to class.”
Mowen considers teaching both a “humbling and gratifying experience. He said he’s grown as an educator through the help of colleagues and students.
As an educator, he said, he’s guided by the fact that students want to grow and succeed as individuals.
“They want to contribute to something larger than themselves — something that draws upon their inherent talents and passions,” Mowen said. “It is up to us as teachers to spark, steer and facilitate student learning regarding these ‘somethings.’ Different students learn in different ways, so it’s important for a given class to provide multiple options and assignments to connect with these different learning styles.”
Mowen wants to expose his students to a breadth of professional experiences, so he’s always looking for ways to make interactions with industry leaders a key part of his coursework. He said this helps students understand the fun and inspiring part of recreation, park and tourism management but also some of the realities of the operating environment.
Mowen finds his students to be his best teachers. They’re constantly challenging him to think in different ways. And, because they have a wide range of learning styles, life situations and personalities, it forces him to be more versatile as an educator and adviser.
When students are struggling, Mowen finds that being versatile can pay off in the long run. He’s extended a hand to students who’ve missed assignments or class time and found that a personal and compassionate conversation with those students can lead to a second chance — and a more engaged student — instead of one who quickly fails out of the course.
“Students have taught me that, when given the opportunity, they can be their own agents of change and growth,” Mowen said.
Students said Mowen’s courses were challenging but that they were able to succeed with help from his ability to engage them.
“While I was greatly challenged by Dr. Mowen’s courses, the content and experience gained from them have proven invaluable in my professional development,” a former student said. “I attribute much of this to his unique ability to engage students in the most complex issues surrounding the recreation field. Undoubtedly, Dr. Mowen has positively impacted hundreds of students during his tenure.”
Colleagues said Mowen is a great teacher but is also someone who believes his students will go on to do great things. Graduates of the program often have a hand in shaping the communities they join or return to after graduating from Penn State.
“Dr. Mowen has established the educational foundation for a the critical role of community recreation in promoting health and well-being” a nominator said. “His efforts to provide curriculum, mentor future faculty, and teach undergraduates on this topic deserve recognition from Penn State for its impact on teaching and learning.”
As someone who is educating future PreK-8 educators, Napoli wants to help her students learn while setting an example for the learning process. Her mission is to encourage her students to value and adopt learning practices that will broaden their professional lives.
To do that, she said, in the classroom she promotes rich experiences filled with dialog, collaborative work, critical engagement and choice.
“As someone who is highly interested in the art of teaching, I strive to continuously enhance the quality and effectiveness of my instruction, to reflectively model instructional approaches, and to make direct connections to real educational contexts,” Napoli said.
Napoli called teaching educators one of the greatest joys of her Penn State career. She encourages her students to be active participants in the learning process. Her goal is to reignite their love of reading and writing much like they will soon do for their own students.
Her approaches to literacy factor in cultural authenticity, accuracy and issues of diversity. In essence, she fosters opportunities for students to transact more deeply with literature and invites future teachers to infuse diverse and culturally relevant literature in PreK-8 classrooms.
Her students are encouraged to work in small groups to examine, assess and critique literary works. In one course engagement, her students create a social justice text set around issues including race/ethnicity, adoption/foster care, gender, immigration, poverty, and environmentalism. Students work together to examine the sociopolitical and pedagogical issues that surround literature and discuss ways to incorporate print, digital, and online resources to enhance student learning.
She also encourages her students to become reflective educators. Her students are frequently asked to reflect on what they have learned and how their specific instructional decisions impact their students’ learning. Her courses also feature opportunities to meet with literary experts such authors, illustrators, and poets, Napoli finds that through discussions with the experts, students learn more about the creative process and deepen their connection with the texts.
“I believe that sharing my enthusiasm about literacy instruction, children’s literature, and language arts and providing hands-on engagements are key to building my students’ content knowledge and interest in the subject,” Napoli said.
Napoli’s students called her an engaging teacher who cared about their success.
“Dr. Napoli is an engaged teacher who believes in student-centered learning,’ a former student said. “I have never had a teacher who was more committed to their student’s success in the classroom, and in their future careers. Dr. Napoli was able to foster a love of reading and writing instruction in me and my peers. She showed us modern and diverse texts to use in our classrooms with students and exposed us to experiences with professionals in the field of education and children’s literature in the classroom to build our professional network beyond the Penn State classroom.”
As the student population becomes more diverse, Scanlon said, it’s increasingly important for faculty to meet their students where they are. She recognizes students as individuals and brings a variety of approaches into the curriculum to achieve the highest degree of success.
In engineering, the concepts are often complex and difficult to visualize, which can overwhelm students. That’s why she uses diverse teaching methods to best convey the complex material so that students can see how these concepts play out in the world around them.
“Doing so goes a long way toward making an intimidating theoretical construct something that a student can visualize, apply, absorb and master,” Scanlon said. “As my career has progressed, I’ve gained wisdom that has continued to shape my teaching philosophy and allowed me to change, evolve and truly improve as a faculty member.”
Scanlon said raising four sons helped her grow as an educator because she’s learned so much from them. She treats her students the way she would want her children to be treated.
“As I sent each of them off to college, I found myself with several hopes for them,” Scanlon said. “The hopes that they find their true passion, that they are given every opportunity to succeed, and most importantly, that should they ever find themselves struggling, whether in a specific class, or with a tough decision, there is a professor there to help them. At some point, I realized that the way I was hoping a professor would treat my sons, was exactly the way I should be treating my students.
Scanlon knows some of the best lessons can be gleaned from outside the classroom, so she strives to engage her students with real-world lessons.
She also puts emphasis on mentorships to elevate the next generation of engineers. She directs the outreach program FiERCE (Futures in Engineering, Role-Models Can Empower), where more than 60 engineering students offer role-modeling and mentoring to more than 400 local middle and high school students.
Scanlon said she’s guided by the principle that kindness elevates students more than fear. She fosters an environment where students know she’s there to help them succeed and that she cares about their growth inside and outside the classroom and values them not just as students but as people.
A former student said Scanlon encouraged them to get involved early in research which gave them the confidence to become an engineering mentor later through the FiERCE program.
“The club’s focus is to help mentor students in the regional community by encouraging career paths in engineering and science related fields,” the former student said. “Dr. Scanlon has a real passion for teaching, and it really proved evident in the way that she designed the experience for the students. She designed the presentations and activities in a way that the students were challenged to use the information they had just been taught and to apply it to the activity in front of them.”
Schmitz said his goal is to educate the next generation of aerodynamics engineers for the aerospace and wind energy industry, academia and national agencies such as NASA and the Department of Energy. To accomplish this, he sets in place a number of strategies inside and outside the classroom.
Schmitz finds student-centered strategies work best with the educator who is a peer and mentor who wants to join them in the learning process.
He wants his students to have a clear and concise expectation of what’s to be expected in the classroom. Students know up front the learning objectives, assignment due dates, grading structure, office hours and more.
Schmitz looks back to when he was a student. He learned best when he was engaged in class and felt comfortable asking questions.
He’s also good at reading the room. If students are asking questions because something is unclear — or he notices a theme in recent office visits — he knows he needs to revisit the material. Students learn in a variety of ways, so he delivers themes through textbooks, class discussions and online formats.
Office hours are critical for reaching students who are failing to grasp a key concept or those who are falling behind. These one-on-one communications, he said, are a great way to reach some students.
Schmitz also shares his research. He wants his students to not lose sight of how science is reshaping our everyday lives at every turn.
“I constantly share aspects of my research with undergraduate students in class,” Schmitz said. “It sparks their motivation and curiosity, gets them interested in independent research and senior research theses. Students love to see how ‘dry concepts & theory’ gets applied to situations that they could not have imagined before.”
Colleagues said Schmitz is a great educator but that he’s always looking for ways to improve the program through new course creation, writing textbooks, conducting research and serving in leadership roles.
“Schmitz is making outstanding contributions to our students’ education through his considerable efforts in and out of the classroom,” a nominator said. “In addition, he has helped to bolster our curriculum through the creation of new courses and excellent teaching. His research efforts have flourished alongside his commitment to teaching.”
His students said he makes their time at Penn State memorable.
“As time passes, there will be many memories of college that don’t stick with me for long,” a former student said. “However, I don’t think I will soon forget the educators that were, and are, wholeheartedly committed to their work. Teachers like Sven shape student lives in ways that often go unrealized or unacknowledged until years later. I am grateful for the opportunity to acknowledge Dr. Schmitz’s excellence.”
White said he aspires to be a teacher whose lessons “linger in hearts and challenge minds for long after the course ends.” He said his goal is to give students a more sophisticated understanding of the complex historical factors that shaped and continue to shape America.
To achieve this, he said, critical thinking is key. During lessons on history, he encourages his students to ask why specific actions caused specific reactions. He teaches his students that the events of the past — and the reactions to those events — are still relevant today.
To understand history in all its context, he said, students need to examine various perspectives from the past. He exposes his students to rigorous historical texts, followed up with lectures and assignments. Sources for his lessons need not always come from textbooks and other scholarly works. He digs up history lessons from pop culture, memoirs, music and other works.
“I believe literature and music unearth deeper truths beneath historical facts,” White said. “Hence, students studying tenets of Derrick Bell’s ‘Critical Race Theory,’ along with lyrics from Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power,’ realize the same phenomena are highlighted through different mediums.”
The lecture still can be a powerful thing, White said. As a teacher, poet, public speaker and ministry leader, he said, the ability to be an effective orator is a priceless teaching tool.
“Students read, think, and write in my courses,” White said. “However, I also create engaging lectures to talk ‘to’ students, not ‘at’ them. I invite them to become interlocutors with history in a way that presumes it is both an exciting and vital discipline. Full of blood, struggle, love, hate, defeat, and triumph, history is masterpiece theater.”
White said he’s honest about history. There’s no need to inflate events to educate. His lessons rely on quantitative historical evidence for historical events.
“History is full of stories that resonate powerfully — Anne Frank still lives,” White said. “My goal is to show students that anecdotal and statistical evidence work symbiotically to portray historical truths. These truths urge us to locate and aspire to our greatest selves.”
Students said White is a dynamic educator who also values their opinions and cares about their successes.
"Professor White quickly became more than just an educator; he became a mentor and friend,” a former student said “He constantly pushed his students to grow beyond their boundaries and emphasized the power of the mind. As we’d dive into each lesson, Professor White created a dynamic yet inclusive environment for each student to feel comfortable when sharing experiences of their realities, voicing their opinions and grasping for better understanding regarding considerably tense and sensitive subjects.”