Six faculty members receive 2018 Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2018 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.

They are Fred Aebli, information sciences and technology program co-coordinator and lecturer at Penn State Worthington Scranton; Elaine S. Barry, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Fayette; Mary Connerty, senior lecturer in English at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College; Dennis Decoteau, professor of horticulture and plant system health in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Fred Fonseca, associate professor of information sciences and technology in the College of Information Sciences and Technology; and Michael Janik, professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering.

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

Fred Aebli

Aebli said he is always striving to improve his ability to engage students and elevate their learning within the classroom. Doing this, he said, requires patience, persistence and passion. He believes every student wants to become the best version of themselves and he aims to guide them through that process.

“When students are witness to your passion, they want to learn,” Aebli said. “Engagement is an awakening of interest. I have spent considerable time in looking at making the classroom an interactive experience.”

Aebli uses gamification techniques to “stoke the fire” of the learning process and further engage his students. He uses a cellphone app, learning management system features and other technologies to reach his students.

“As students are immersed in challenging learning assessments, we should be prepared to see students have doubts in their abilities, field of study and themselves. I enjoy being a mentor and coach. I make myself available to students as they uncover questions, doubts and concerns. Through office hours and video chats, I’m able to ‘talk and walk’ with my students. It’s during these times outside of the classroom that I truly learn about our students, so I can better serve and teach them.”

A student said Aebli is a dedicated teacher who is always available for his students.

“His resilient dedication to a purposeful, enjoyable and enlightening experience for his students in and out of the classroom was inspiring,” the student said. “His enthusiasm as a mentor radiated throughout the University, especially in the technology and cybersecurity sphere within Penn State.”

A colleague said Aebli possesses the knowledge, skill and passion to provide an exceptional experience for his students.

“His commitment to student learning is evident in the value he places on creating a relaxed and engaged classroom environment and on fostering both a professional and personal relationship with his students,” the colleague said.

Elaine S. Barry

Barry said developmental science teaches us that we learn better from those we feel connected to. She said successful teaching and learning occur at those points where the teacher’s and learner’s interests, understanding and experiences intersect.

“My job is to create opportunities for these variables to intersect,” Barry said. “The context for these opportunities includes my classroom, office hours, student activities, through phone conversations and email, or anywhere I might engage with students.”

Barry said learning opportunities are designed to meet her teaching goals, which include helping students learn how to apply material in real-life situations and helping students learn how to ask good questions.

“I remind students that asking questions is much more important than just answering them because an answer to a question is just the beginning of more questions in our search for knowledge,” Barry said.

One of Barry’s former students said her encouragement for success prompted her to travel to different colleges to present her research, as well as receive awards for submitting projects.

“I always walked away from her feeling motivated and excited,” the student said. “Aside from her classes, she taught me how to learn effectively just as she does for all her students. I am now in graduate school and I find that I still take the knowledge I learned from her with me in all that I do. I believe that Barry is one of the highest quality teachers because I am able to apply everything she has taught me in all that I do in life. I think that speaks volumes to her teaching ability.”

A colleague who recently sat in one of Barry’s classrooms said she exemplifies what it means to be an educator.

“They really do love her. They appreciate her skill in making them understand complex topics and they know she wants them to succeed and will help them with anything,” the colleague said.

Mary Connerty

Connerty, who teaches courses in composition, technical writing and English language acquisition, sees learning as the act of discovery. She loved learning as a child, where, for her, school was a place of magic. She said it’s where she could travel the world, perform feats of science, engage with the past and more.

“I was fortunate enough to be exposed to languages and world travel at a young age,” Connerty said. “This was another exciting discovery. Puzzling out how to communicate in various languages was intoxicating and began my passion for the study of languages, communication and culture.”

Connerty said her students feed on her passion for the subject. Her disciplinary interests and experiences influence each other and play a part in the classroom. Her work with non-native English speaking students is influenced by her background in linguistics, rhetoric, composition and second language acquisition. Additionally, her teaching of technical writing is framed by her professional experience as a technical writer, along with her theoretical background in rhetoric and composition.

“I actively seek to create a student-centered classroom where students participate in directing their objectives,” Connerty said. “I see myself as a guide and co-learner working side-by-side with my students, sometimes to identify the puzzles, sometimes to solve them.”

A student praised Connerty’s ability to help them overcome the anxiety of being an international student.

“Dr. Connerty is an outstanding instructor, an invaluable mentor,” the student said. “She makes Penn State an intellectual wonderland and a home to me and numerous international and immigrant students, making sure that each of us is supported and valued.”

A colleague said Connerty is always able to help her students learn. No matter the subject, the colleague said, Connerty approaches it with her dynamic personality, commitment to student success and infectious love of the academic enterprise.

“Her depth of knowledge is impressive in her ability to connect with her students — regardless of native background, language, or faith — is remarkable,” the colleague said.

Dennis Decoteau

Decoteau, a faculty member for more than 30 years, continuously pursues improvements to the student-learning environment though teaching innovative courses and integrating experiential learning for students through supplemental research within the courses.

He recently developed and taught a Schreyer Honors course focusing on the Irish Potato Famine and was successful at receiving funding from several igrants to offset student costs associated with the embedded travel to Ireland.

Decoteau is constantly evaluating and reviewing the content and method of delivery of information in his courses. He developed the Blue-Orange teaching initiative by partnering his students with the University of Florida, where each could share their knowledge. The class uses Facebook, plant exchanges and other novel interactions to build the learning partnership.

“I believe students engage and learn through meaningful formal classroom and informal out-of-classroom experiences,” Decoteau said. “I strive to make my interactions memorable for the students by expecting high levels of intellectual engagement and mastery in the subject area. I also want the students to become empowered to ‘live’ the classroom material and, more importantly, see their roles in enhancing our current knowledge of the subject matter and subsequently improving society.”

A student said Decoteau has the remarkable ability to make a classroom feel like home, a place where students can explore new ideas as thoughtful individuals with insightful conversations, rather than a testing center that demanded only basic memorization.

“Because of this class I have become a better thinker and global citizen,” the student said. “He is truly a rare and special teacher who will continue to be treasured by students because of his warmth, his kindness, his love of life, his breath of knowledge and his generous spirit to share his wisdom with anyone with an open ear.”

A colleague cited Decoteau’s innovative approaches to education, particularly his class on the Irish potato famine.

“Decoteau was instrumental in stirring the intellectual curiosity of the students and encouraging them to really delve into famine and all its facets,” the colleague said. He certainly brought the famine to life in both the course and the 10-day travel to Ireland.”

Fred Fonseca

Fonseca is co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL), a collaborative effort of the College of Education, Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State Outreach, and Online Learning. The mission of COIL, which began in 2012, is to advance the teaching and learning process through this discovery and application of online innovations.

In his computer programming courses, Fonseca strives to develop a learning experience that tasks students with a project realistic enough to excite their interest, while at the same time sufficiently structured to give them focused opportunities to practice and learn basic skills.

For this model, Fonseca provides examples of and promotes a desire to master new knowledge. He then creates exercises that involve what students already know, but demands changes. He helps students relate what they learned about basics to a realistic project and gives them opportunities to try out new skills by creating applications. The model embeds basic practices within an expert performance.

“The performance phase is the development of the software project itself,” Fonseca said. “In the second half of the semester students face the final project in a do-or-die confrontation realizing that they have to put the pieces together and make them work. Some students are shocked that the teacher is finished. There are no more exercises, quizzes or any other activities besides the work on their own projects. Now, they are programmers; the instructor is a senior expert; and the teaching assistants and interns are colleagues.”

Fonseca said the result is that students finish the semester proud of their designed programs, not their grades.

“What once seemed impossible becomes a doable task,” Fonseca said. “The last week of the course explodes in celebrations more like those of triumphant athletes than the numb relief of students who have at long last finished the course.”

A student praised Fonseca’s ability to simplify complex programming problems using innovative teaching methods.

“Fonseca’s ability to simplify lessons with analogies, build on previous lessons, and provide individual attention and support to his students make him a great teacher,” the student said. “He is a great pillar in the bridge that led to my success.”

A colleague said an untrained observer might describe one of Fonseca’s classes as chaotic. The room is noisy. No one stands at the front. Students muse about, looking at each other’s screens. Teaching assistants walk around the room responding to questions and pointing at problems in a student’s code. Fonseca sits in the corner of the room with struggling learners, posing questions to help students understand why their code is failing.

“However an observer trained in pedagogy sees the fruits of a well-planned, learner-focus course in which teaching behaviors are aligned with teaching philosophy and teaching methodology,” the colleague said. “The classroom is alive with active meaningful learning.”

Michael J. Janik

As an undergraduate engineering student, Janik often noted that his engineering classes lacked the open and impassioned discussions found in his English and poetry classes. So, he set out to change that.

It took his experiences as a process engineer and graduate courses at night to get him engaged and excited about the chemical engineering profession, which motivated him to return to graduate school and pursue an academic career.

“As the teacher, I aim for an interactive classroom that engages and excites students to meet the course objectives,” Janik said.

He relies on daily exercises to ensure students arrive prepared and remain involved. Interactive exercises and group work aid in learning.

Additionally, he designed and taught a senior-level elective course in chemical energy technology that illustrates how project work and classroom activities are integrated to meet course objectives. Students construct future energy scenarios for the next 25 to 50 years, analyzing potential energy sources and technology needed to meet future energy demands.

“I'm thrilled to see students eager to come to class and participate in interactive exercises and discussions and, more generally, to express an excitement for the course material,” Janik said. “Through a course and class structure that maximizes interaction among students and engagement with the material, students meet the learning objectives of the course and leave enthusiastic about the further learning.”

A student praised Janik for teaching real-world applications of chemical engineering, including a major class project looking at the analysis of different separation techniques for methane and carbon dioxide, something very relevant for students looking to enter the energy field.

“Janik goes above and beyond the requirements of his position and actively searches for opportunities to benefit his students,” the student said. “It’s the personal attention Janik gives to his students that truly makes him an excellent professor and set them apart.”

Citing a chemical energy technology course, a colleague praised Janik’s use of interactive games and other methods and for his ability to elevate each student.

“Teaching with Dr. Janik has been a precious learning experience in my career,” the colleague said. “His ability to put great focus on each student is something I strive to do in my career.”