Alumni award winner continues to actively engage students

Rebecca West Burns, an alumna of Penn State's College of Education, is a life-long learner. From her days as a kindergartner purchasing school supplies for the play schoolhouse in her basement, to her current drive to find new ways to engage students and educators, this 2013 Alumni Achievement Award winner has been thinking about education for most of her life. These days, as an assistant professor at the University of South Florida, she shares her passion for learning, technology and community with her education students.

Burns said she knew she wanted to be a teacher from a young age. She partly credits her sixth-grade teacher, Joel Frantz, for that. In high school, Burns had the opportunity to participate in a high-school teaching-assistant program where she worked with Frantz, who helped demonstrate to Burns, once again, how teaching could be interesting and interactive. 

Since these early experiences, Burns has remained dedicated to the idea that teaching should actively engage students. “We ask kids to sit for so long in school,” said Burns, who feels that getting students of all ages actively involved is crucial to education.

As her career and education progressed, Burns expanded on that idea as she developed programs geared at engaging students. As a sixth-grade teacher at Gilbertsville Elementary in eastern Pennsylvania, she developed the "Outdoor Learning Classrooms Project," an outdoor space where she could not only teach science, but have students experience it.

Later, as a doctoral student in the College of Education, Burns co-developed "Turning Learning Inside Out,” a culture-changing, professional-development program at Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pa., that solicited educators’ input and empowered them to learn from one another while building community.

Community is foundational to education according to Burns. Creating a space where people can share, listen, understand and find resolutions is her idea of real education.

In addition to building community physically, Burns also is passionate about building community virtually, using technology to promote participation and enhance education. As a student, she loved tweeting questions and class notes to start discussions with classmates and instructors. As a consultant at the Krause Innovation Center at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., Burns worked on technological innovations for the classroom. She encourages her current students to use technology to expand their learning experience by having them take advantage of website space and blogging opportunities.

Burns recognizes that her Penn State education helped her become a successful educator, citing professors and advisers who helped her rethink teacher education. Now she is helping future educators rethink learning by challenging them to explore not only community and technology, but also new ideas that could possibly enhance the educational experience for future students.

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Last Updated March 20, 2013