Six faculty members receive Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching

April 09, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Six Penn State faculty members have received the 2015 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching, an award named after Penn State’s seventh president which honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.

This year’s recipients are Lisa Reeves Bertin, senior instructor of information sciences and technology and business at Penn State Shenango; Demi LuAnn, senior instructor of the occupational therapy assistant program at Penn State DuBois; Michael Krajsa, instructor of marketing and management at Penn State Lehigh Valley; Jennelle Malcos, lecturer and academic adviser in Eberly College of Science; Irene Petrick, senior lecturer in the College of Information Sciences and Technology and Felisa Preciado, clinical associate professor in the Smeal College of Business.

As a senior instructor, Reeves Bertin believes teaching methods need to change as rapidly as technology, and that teachers must be willing to evolve. Her colleagues describe her as being an effective, dedicated and passionate educator with high SRTE scores.

“I strive to be an effective communicator and teacher in all interactions with my students,” she said. “When I am in the classroom, I avoid being the ‘sage on the stage.’ Standing in front of a room simply stating the course does not, in my opinion, lead to learning. Students need to truly immerse themselves in the content.”

Reeves Bertin augments her classes using a hybrid model that includes digital tools such as videos, podcasts and other multimedia, often recording lecture materials into 15 to 20 minute clips using an enhanced learning process called “chunking.” Reeves Bertin believes her “openness, creativity and willingness to listen to students” makes her an effective educator.

A student said Reeves Bertin has it all.  “She’s tough when needed, but honest and fair. And she is always available for her students. She has influenced my education in a way that I never thought possible.”

Demi believes real-life learning experiences trump efforts in the classroom. That is why she’s dedicated to fostering student engagement through service learning, community outreach and inter-professional collaboration.

“It is through this aspect of teaching that I become even more enthusiastic about course information by demonstrating what was lectured, observing and giving feedback to students, and working with them to understand and problem-solve scenarios that they will encounter in their careers as occupational therapy assistants,” she said.

Demi has implemented mandatory service-learning activities, recruited community-based clinicians to guest lecture and organized hands-on training workshops for students. Her students also play an active role in caring for local senior citizens through programs such as CarFit, where older drivers are helped to become safer drivers.

Demi says the best teachers are also students. That is why she remains active in occupational therapy, practicing at a local clinic to stay knowledgeable on current treatments, equipment and techniques. Colleagues said Demi’s ability to remain creative and innovative has made her a gifted educator.

Colleagues say Krajsa is a “passionate” educator who motivates his students to engage life and become global citizens. He credits his educational accomplishments as the result of a team of administrators, faculty, staff and business colleagues working to provide an environment where “innovative and experiential programs” can develop and grow. Krajsa replaces the traditional “three R’s of education” with rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Rigor provides students with strong foundations in business, strategy, international relations, marketing philosophy and communication skills. It commands an emphasis on imagination, innovation and building partnerships, he said. Relevance and relationships, Krajsa said, means teaching and mentoring soft skills along with team, leadership and networking skills so that students engage and motivate co-workers and customers in their future careers.

Krajsa understands that business is global. That is why he has created short-term study abroad opportunities for his students in Peru, India, Africa and China. Krajsa said the key to nurturing student development and building confidence in their skills and ideas is by earning their trust.

“Students flourish when working with instructors who value them as individuals — taking interest in who they are and what matters to them — then linking all of this to the subject matter,” he said.

A student was caught off guard when meeting Krajsa: “I walked into the classroom and I found Krajsa’s energy to be inspiring. He asked the class, ‘What are you passionate about?’ I’ve never had a teacher ask me that before.”

Malcos often teaches classes of hundreds of students, but she says that’s no excuse to lecture the entire time. Instead, she’s adapted her methods to accommodate the volume of students.

“Research has shown over and over that students learn best and retain knowledge through active learning, and being immersed in the material, engaged in problem-solving and conversation — not being talked at for 50 minutes,” said Malcos. To that end, she’s transformed Penn State’s largest lecture hall into a collection of communities working together. With the help of a strong and well-trained core of learning assistants, Malcos conducts the class in thirds, starting with conversation-based clicker questions, then a worksheet and, finally, notetaking.

Early data from her method show students learn more effectively and are 50 percent less likely to drop the class. Malcos says this new method better enables her to achieve her objective of “helping students learn and become lifelong learners who are enthusiastic about biology.” A student called Malcos “an inspiration in and outside the classroom.”

One nominator said Maclos “truly stands out from all the others as the best professor, mentor and friend at Penn State.” Colleagues also said Malcos’ enthusiasm and energy for students and learning is “infectious.”

In more than 25 years teaching, Petrick has seen a lot of change and has been a driving force behind it. Faced with different classroom challenges, she successfully adapted her methods.

The transfer to the digital world made a lot of physical hands-on exercises seem esoteric to students. To make the transition easier for students, Petrick built new exercises, such as the tinker toy challenge, where students explore topics related to cost-effective software architecture design by building a physical structure that mimics digital data transfer and communication.

Petrick also adapted her methods to keep up-to-date with the rapid changes in the IST field. She became an active learner, working summers in the industry to bring new experiences into the classroom and is able to continually modify her methods on the fly. When students in her IST301: Organization and Design Information Systems class fell behind on the coursework, she asked the class to critique the format and provide arguments for their lack of understanding the materials. Then she restructured the class and provided a catch-up session.

“At no point did she make the collective lapse personal,” a former student said. “She took the time to help the students do well.”

A colleague best described Petrick as an individual who not only teaches about innovation, but embraces it though novel application of technologies in learning.

Preciado says her mission is to “inspire students to realize their potential by expanding their views on the course subject, challenging them to think critically and creating an inclusive learning environment where each individual is fairly assessed and respected.” After all, she says, every interaction with them is a chance to expand their views on “course topics, the world and themselves.”

To have more time for engaging classroom discussion, Preciado moved portions of her course content to online pre-class modules. Classroom time is now spent with two-way questioning, practical examples, no-stakes problem-solving and peer-to-peer instruction. She’s also enlisted the help of local experts to serve as guest lecturers, which gives a cross-industry perspective on relevant issues.

Students praise her focus on real-life scenarios. “She never spoke about a topic as a theory. Instead, she would describe how an issue really affected a company and how the situation should be handled,” said a student. “Because of her teaching style, each topic in the class becomes very tangible and practical.”

A colleague said Preciado’s “infectious enthusiasm has inspired students in all majors to high achievements. Her goal is to instill passion for lifelong learning and a constant thirst for excellence.”

Last Updated April 10, 2015