Stearns receives Educator of the Year award from national landscape association

Amy Duke
April 22, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Dan Stearns, J. Franklin Styer Professor Emeritus, who served as the inaugural professor and program coordinator of the landscape contracting program in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, recently was named Outstanding Educator of the Year by the National Association of Landscape Professionals during its annual conference in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The organization represents an industry of nearly 1 million landscape, lawn care, irrigation and tree care experts. The award recognizes educators who have been passionate supporters and tireless ambassadors of the landscape industry; who have contributed time, energy and enthusiasm to their programs; and who show dedication to the education of future industry leaders.

“Dan Stearns exemplifies what it means to be an engaged and committed educator,” said Erin Connolly, professor and head of the college’s Department of Plant Science. “He gave his best to students, instilling in them the knowledge and confidence needed to make their mark in the industry. Those students — and Penn State — have been enriched by his talents and genuine interest in elevating others.”

Stearns earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and his master’s degree from North Carolina State University, where he also served as a research assistant. Prior to becoming a faculty member at Penn State, he was a landscape architect for the New York State Department of Transportation and for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in North Carolina. He also owned lawn-care and landscape-architecture businesses in Massachusetts.

After working in the private and government sectors for more than a decade, Stearns ventured into teaching, serving as program coordinator for the landscape contracting major from its inception in 1989 until his retirement in 2017.

Dan Stearns acceptance speech

Dan Stearns thanks the National Association of Landscape Professionals after receiving the Outstanding Educator of the Year Award.   

IMAGE: Angela Barr

“I got a taste of teaching when I was in graduate school and thought that I would enjoy it as a profession, so when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to make the transition into teaching,” he said, adding that his professional experiences influenced his teaching. “Domain knowledge is one of the pillars of effective teaching, and I believe that working in the profession is the most efficient way to obtain that knowledge.”

Stearns led the development of eight courses in the curriculum, having taught or co-taught five of the core courses annually. He also engaged students in landscape construction projects, providing opportunities for the development of technical, critical thinking and project management skills.

In all, his students participated in 39 hands-on projects to create or improve landscaped spaces on campus, including the Hintz Alumni Garden, and in the surrounding community. Stearns also co-organized annual student trips to visit landscape companies, nurseries and public gardens in the mid-Atlantic region.

“It was important to me to provide students with hands-on experiences with plants, construction techniques, maintenance activities and design,” he said. “Equally important was to be respectful of the students and find out what they wanted to learn and how they wanted to learn it. Whether a first-year student or a returning adult, they all had a curiosity and a level of energy that was impressive.”

Stearns advised landscape contracting students, served as honors adviser for the program and supervised students enrolled in independent studies and student internships. He made it a priority to connect students with firms recruiting graduates and interns, increasing the number of firms visiting the program from two or three a year to 35 or more.

In addition, he was a long-time co-adviser of the Penn State Horticulture Club and Penn State’s National Association of Landscape Professionals Competition Team, a subgroup of the club that participates in the annual National Collegiate Landscape Competition.

The Outstanding Educator of the Year Award is the latest in a string of accolades for Stearns. In 2003, he was named a Harbaugh Faculty Scholar in recognition of his creativity in cultivating new curricula. In 2006, he was named J. Franklin Styer Professor of Horticultural Botany, an acknowledgement of his contributions to research and teaching. In 2015, he received the Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching.

In 2018, industry leader Daniel Eichenlaub and his wife, Barbara, pledged $100,000 to establish the Dan T. Stearns Landscape Contracting Program Endowment, which provides funds for student enrichment activities, such as industry conferences, competitions and business/site visits.

Stearns said he is grateful for the many mentors in his life, from professors to past employers and co-workers to colleagues in academia.

“From each I have learned and to each I owe a debt of gratitude,” he said. “I have relied on many others for their experience and expertise in the development of effective teaching methods. I have also learned much from the many industry partners who have unselfishly given their time to bring current and best practices directly to the classroom.”

Most of all, he’s thankful for the students who have graced the program.

“The most satisfaction is seeing how our alums are contributing to the profession, the environment and quality of life for others. I have always enjoyed working with students, learning what motivates them and helping them figure out their optimum path to success. Teaching was a dream job for me.”

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Last Updated April 22, 2019