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Teaching Excellence In and Outside the Classroom

Arts & Sciences Teaching and Leadership Awards celebrate new and traditional methods

Teaching award winners Chris Roy, Purnima Shah, Mohamed Noor and Jun Yang.  Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography
Teaching award winners Chris Roy, Purnima Shah, Mohamed Noor and Jun Yang. Photo by Megan Morr/Duke University Photography

The 2013 Arts & Sciences Teaching and Leadership Awards honored both the old and the new.

In addition to the traditional Arts & Sciences teaching awards presented Monday, Dean Laurie Patton this year created two new awards to recognize excellence in team learning and the use of technology in teaching.

"So much of our teaching and learning happens in teams now," Patton said.  "I wanted an award to recognize groups that are making distinctive contributions by working together to find more effective ways to pursue their craft."

The first Dean's Leadership Award went to the team of physicists who are hunting the Higgs boson. The team, which uses the ATLAS instrument at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, reached across continents to involve undergraduates in one of the highest-profile science projects of modern times.

The ATLAS team includes professors Ayana Arce, Ashutosh Kotwal, Al Goshaw, Mark Kruse, Seog Oh, and research scientists Jack Fowler, Chiho Wang, William Ebenstein, Doug Benjamin and Andrea Bocci.

The scientists played a major role in constructing the Transition Radiation Tracker (TRT), an instrument that contributed to discovery of the Higgs-like particle announced in 2012. Analysis from the TRT was important in predicting coordinates of charged particles in high-energy collisions and identifying electrons produced from the decay of possible Higgs bosons.

The team didn't stop with construction of the TRT. After receiving requests from undergraduates to learn more about the hunt for Higgs bosons, the team invited as many as 10 students to do high-energy physics research at either Duke or CERN in Switzerland during summers and on campus during the academic year.  (A series of stories on Duke faculty and students' research at CERN can be found here.)

"The team works effectively in enriching and transforming the undergraduate research experience, which has had and will continue to have great impact on the lives of these students," said Duke Physics Chair Haiyan Gao. "Such experiences will be inspiring to many other students in the future."

Ronen Plesser, teaching in the Coursera course.

The Teaching with Technology award went to physics professor Ronen Plesser, who for nearly two decades has guided thousands of Duke students, community members and -- this past fall -- online students from around the world through the workings of the night sky. 

Well known at Duke for his astronomy classes and in the local community for his regular Friday night astronomy observatory sessions in Duke Forest, Plesser taught an intensive Coursera online course on introductory astronomy this past fall that brought in 60,000 enrollees, 5,500 of whom completed the nine weeks of lectures.  

He also collaborates with department colleagues to enhance Duke students' education by involving them in teaching physics through demonstrations and outreach activities at local public schools.

Both the Coursera course and Plesser's introductory astronomy course uses technology in demonstrations when appropriate.

"I don't think of myself as being heavily into technology," he said.  "I just use whatever seems to work." 

His passion for teaching comes not from technology but from the extraordinary explosion of knowledge in the field in the past few decades, he said.  It makes it easy to pass that passion on to students whether they are in the classroom or online in Greece.

"I walked into my office last week and heard about the discovery of three Earth-like planets in the galaxy," he said.  "Everything is so new in this field."  

In addition to the two new honors, the following Arts & Sciences teaching awards were presented:

Jun Yang, Department of Computer Science, David and Janet Vaughn Brooks Award:

Yang starts the first session of his introductory database systems course with his own sales pitch, telling students why they will be interested in the class and the projects that will engage them.  By the end of that first class, most of the students are sold.

A Duke student who nominated Yang called the professor's assignments and projects "thought-provoking," and instrumental in helping the student get a summer computer science job. Students said Yang frequently joined them in The Link for problem solving sessions after class; his effort also included late evening computer maintenance.

"We crashed the server now and then when working on the course project, and we would e-mail Dr. Yang and he would fix it quickly (even at late hours) so we could keep moving forward," the student said.    

"Teaching these fundamentals is easier said than done," Yang said. "Very often, students become engrossed by details and lose the bigger picture. So instead of preaching, I often sprinkle my lectures with little 'excursions,'" such as covering debates about certain methods that occur in the field.

Computer science chair Carlo Tomasi sees several traits common to all of Yang's classes. 

"I see enthusiasm for the topics covered, love of students, and a deep sense of commitment, care, and dedication. Jun spares no effort to optimize his students' learning experience, and one sees many glimpses of long hours and sleepless nights devoted to making his classes as good as they can be," Tomasi said.


Christopher Roy, Department of Chemistry, Robert B. Cox Award:

The Department of Chemistry has a history of teaching awards: From Jim Bonk through Al Crumbliss, Richard MacPhail and Stephen Craig, the department, despite its reputation for difficult introductory courses, has won praise from students.

That's one thing that attracted Roy to the department.

"The place is an inspiration," he said.  "The collegiality of it makes me a better teacher.  They drive you to compete higher, and when the students feel the excitement in the classroom, they drive you even higher."

Roy is involved in the full range of teaching opportunities: introductory chemistry courses, small senior seminars, laboratories, advising and is even a faculty in residence on East Campus. He holds office hours in his East Campus apartment and says living on campus breaks down learning barriers between teacher and student.

"What is amazing to me is students often will come up as I am walking the dogs, or come to one of my "Monday Night Cookie Night" programs and we will not only talk about chemistry, but life in general, he said."

"The only downside about Chris is that we are all tired of hearing the chemistry students talking about what a great teacher he is," joked Craig, a 2006 teaching award winner and chair of chemistry.


Litzinger in China

Ralph Litzinger, in China with students on Monday, the day of the teaching award ceremony.

Ralph Litzinger, Cultural Anthropology, Howard D. Johnson Award:

It seems appropriate that Litzinger couldn't attend the award ceremony this week: He was in China leading a Global Semester Abroad program for Duke students, an example of how he has helped provide international learning opportunities for many students.

Department Chair Orin Starn said Litzinger "embodies the model of the professor who takes his work as an educator as a central professional responsibility both in and outside the classroom" and has been a key figure in Duke's expansion of service-learning and global education.

In the classroom, he has taught both large introductory courses and small seminars to student acclaim, but also has been a mentor to two very different types of students: Asian undergraduates and student-athletes.

Litzinger was involved in the admission of Duke's first-ever undergraduate from Tibet.  He also helped many ethnic Chinese students assimilate into the new environment in Durham. 

"One of the most notable changes in the Duke student body of the last few years has been, the growing number of Asian undergraduates," Starn wrote in nominating Litzinger. "He has been a key resource and a warm welcome for these students as they make the transition into life in a new country."


Purnima Shah, Duke Dance Program, Richard K. Lublin Award:

Shah teaches dance, but students in her classes learn about anatomy, history, culture, poetry, politics, philosophy, anthropology, theater and other subjects that are essential to effective expression through movement.

"Dance involves everything; that's one of the reasons why I love teaching it," Shah said.  "If we are talking about dance in Chinese opera, we have to talk about Mao and his wife and how they affected opera.  Teaching dance is always new because there is something more to learn about it."

Shah has been instrumental in the dance program's curriculum expansion beyond Western-based art, said department chair Keval Khalsa, developing seven new courses and reworking three others.  The effect is to "broaden student perspective on world cultures and religions through a thorough understanding of the artistic practices of particular cultures," she said.

Trained in classical Indian dance, Shah performed around the world for nearly two decades.  She said her performance enhanced her scholarly pursuits and that she depends on both scholarship and performance to "feed on each other."

Students said they appreciate Shah's approach and her passion for dance. "Dr. Shah brings an incredible energy to her instruction and is very capable of making ancient concepts feel relevant and interesting to the modern listener," said one student.


Mohamed Noor, Department of Biology, Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award:

A winner of last year's David & Janet Vaughn Brooks Distinguished Teaching Award, Noor returned this year to win the only teaching award selected by undergraduate students.

One of the world's leading scholars on genetics and evolution, Noor reached an international audience this past fall through a Coursera online course on evolution, but at Duke he already had a reputation for engaging the more than 400 students in his introductory biology course and labs.

Students said Noor visits each of the nearly 30 lab sections and talks weekly with every student.  Noor said that personal interaction is essential to making the teaching in the lecture room effective.

Noor is also credited with experimenting with the "flipped classroom model," where students get lecture assignments and homework before class sessions, allowing these sessions to work through the content in small groups.

It's the second straight year a biology faculty member won the Alumni Affairs-sponsored teaching award.  Daniele Armaleo received the honor in 2012.


Lindsey Smith, Thompson Writing Program, Award for Excellence in Teaching Writing:

Lindsay Smith
Lindsay Smith

Students don't always come to the required first-year writing course with an engaged attitude, but Smith's class on "Monkey Mindreading" had students not only improving the expression of their ideas but also doing real research on primate psychology.

"This was both serious science and a way to study writing," said Kristen Neuschel, associate professor of history and director of the Thompson Writing Program. "Students went to the Lemur Center to study primate psychology.  In Lindsey's courses, she made complex science accessible.  Her passion and interest in the topic really engaged the students."

Her course explores the cognitive abilities of non-human primates.  Students learn about scientific writing, discourse and methodology for determining what animals are thinking and how they perceive the world.

The final writing project had students select a cognitive ability and design a research project to investigate the ability.