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March 17, 2011

A&S Bellet teaching awards announced

Winners of the 2011 Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award are Christopher Drew Armstrong, assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture and director of the architectural studies program, and Nancy Pfenning, senior lecturer in the Department of Statistics.

The Bellet teaching awards were established in 1998 by School of Arts and Sciences alumnus David Bellet and his wife, Tina, to recognize outstanding and innovative undergraduate teaching in arts and sciences.

Full-time Pittsburgh campus faculty who have taught undergraduates in A&S during the past three years are eligible. An awards selection committee appointed by the A&S dean’s office evaluates nominees’ teaching skills based on student-teaching and peer evaluations, student testimonials and dossiers submitted by the nominees. Candidates must have at least three nominators.

Each award recipient will receive a cash prize of $5,000. The winners will be honored at a dinner April 6.


drew armstrong 2008Drew Armstrong joined the Pitt faculty in 2005 and was named director of the architectural studies program in 2006. He earned his bachelor’s in architecture (1992) and MA (1994) at the University of Toronto, and his PhD (2003) at Columbia.

His teaching topics include modern art and architecture in Europe and North America. Recently, he has taught Modern Architecture, Architecture and the City in Central Europe, Architecture: Texts + Theory, Portfolio and First Experiences Research.

He also has led field trips for architectural studies majors to Yale’s School of Architecture as well as to landmarks and other venues in New York City, Chicago, Buffalo and Toronto.

In 2009, Armstrong helped develop an integrated field trip abroad, a Pitt course cross-listed with the University of Zagreb in Croatia, where teams of Pitt and Zagreb students work together to research municipal housing projects in central Europe.

Armstrong is credited with reforming the architectural studies program curriculum by developing a number of courses and designing a two-track pathway — the 60-credit design track for students wishing to pursue professional graduate degrees in architecture and the 52-credit preservation track for those wishing to pursue graduate degrees in historic preservation.

In a letter supporting Armstrong’s Bellet Award nomination, department chair Kirk Savage praised Armstrong for his pedagogical contribution to the department and the University that extends beyond the classroom through curricular innovations and new student assessment strategies.

“Within the department, Drew has set a new standard for passion, intensity and achievement in the classroom,” Savage wrote. “Even in a large lecture class, he wanders the aisles, addresses the students by name and engages directly with them. Watch him teach an auditorium full of students how to read a ground plan: By the end of the exercise he has not only empowered the students but shown them how interesting ideas about social order and cultural ideals are embedded in the diagram. I have never seen an instructor who managed to create such an effective rapport with his students while maintaining the appropriate boundaries that structure the teacher-student relationship.”

Savage added that Armstrong’s open-door policy allows him to mentor and teach students individually or in small groups. “Drew has had exceptional success in creating new and intellectually challenging opportunities for experiential learning,” Savage wrote. “Drew has created a palpable sense of excitement in the program that has energized the whole department,” he said, noting that since Armstrong was named director of architectural studies in 2006, the number of majors has doubled and the number of Pitt students getting accepted into professional graduate programs also has increased dramatically.

Armstrong’s work investigates approaches to observation and the experience of art and architecture in the 18th and 19th centuries. He especially is interested in the construction of the “self” and how this concept shapes the relationship of the individual to temporal and spatial phenomena.

Armstrong told the University Times he was ecstatic to learn he had won the Bellet award. “I’ve worked hard over the past five years building the architectural studies program. I could not imagine a job more closely related to my teaching and research interests,” Armstrong said.

His initial career plans were focused toward working in an architectural firm after his undergrad days at the University of Toronto.

“What changed my mind was a course taught in Florence during my fourth year — I was inspired by a month-long introduction to Renaissance architecture given every day on-site by the late professor Hans-Karl Lücke,” Armstrong said. “He was a wonderful, deeply knowledgeable specialist who knew how to talk about buildings and made history relevant. After that experience, I could more easily see myself teaching future architects.”

Coming from an academically oriented family, teaching at the university level then became a natural career progression, he said. “My parents are strongly committed to the ideals of higher education; their example rubbed off on both my brother and me,” Armstrong said.

Good teaching, he said, “arises from being passionate about the material you teach. I always found the most engaging professors to be the ones who were driven by a love for what they studied. I’m never blasé about architecture!

“Students and instructors are linked by a shared interest in architecture, design, historic preservation and the built environment. I believe the most meaningful experiences for students in college are those that foster intellectual development through ongoing social exchange with peers and mentors outside the classroom,” Armstrong maintained. “I think it’s crucially important for universities to stress that the four-year on-campus undergraduate experience is an interactive, social process. The more close contact between students and professors, both in the classroom and informally, the more effective the learning experience for everyone.”

He added that his program encourages out-of-class networking.

“Creating opportunities for students to work in the community has been a priority since I became director of the program. My own courses similarly attempt to bridge the classroom and the community,” Armstrong said. His teaching objectives also include fostering collaborative work among majors, providing majors with opportunities to study important architectural sites in other cities and positioning majors to be admitted to a graduate professional degree program.

bellet.pfenningNancy Pfenning came to Pitt as a part-time instructor in 1988 and joined the full-time statistics faculty as a lecturer in 2001. She was named senior lecturer in 2004. She earned her BS in mathematics at Pitt in 1978 as a Phi Beta Kappa, Chancellor’s Scholarship student. She received her PhD in mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University in 1984. A Pittsburgh native, she was valedictorian at the former St. Anselm High School in Swissvale.

Pfenning’s research interests in graduate school included continuum mechanics, thermodynamics, numerical mathematics and statistics.

At Pitt, Pfenning has taught undergraduate courses in Basic Applied Statistics, Statistics in the Modern World and Honors Applied Statistical Methods, as well as introductory courses in applied statistics, statistical methods and probability and statistics.

Her textbook, “Elementary Statistics: Looking at the Big Picture,” was published in 2010.

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she heads the department’s teaching assistant training and is its liaison to the College in High School program.

In a letter supporting Pfenning’s Bellet Award nomination, Satish Iyengar, statistics department chair, wrote, “Nancy is a highly valued and immensely helpful colleague who richly deserves this award. Nancy’s annual reports, her OMET (Office of Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching) scores, our peer evaluations of her portfolio and the many unsolicited appreciative comments from her students all testify to her excellent teaching skills.”

Iyengar further noted that Pfenning is able to motivate those who are uninterested in statistics, those with math phobia and those who resent having to take statistics before they can enter their chosen program.

“Nancy has overcome these obstacles with her dedication to her students, and they have noticed,” he said. “She is able to use just a modicum of mathematics to teach students how to think about the steps in a statistical investigation, from planning a study, its execution, and then the analysis and interpretation of the resulting data,” Iyengar wrote.

Pfenning told the University Times: “I was certainly honored to win this award. I’m a little sheepish about it, though, to get rewarded for something I love to do.”

Pfenning gravitated toward mathematics at a young age. “I was always good in math. When I was an undergraduate at Pitt I tutored in math, and was a teaching assistant in courses at CMU,” so that an academic career, even in a traditionally male-dominated field, was a natural for her, she said. “I wouldn’t say it mattered much” to be a woman teaching statistics “because of the way my parents raised us. They encouraged all five of us — my three older brothers and younger sister and I — to believe that we could be anything we wanted.”

She noted all five of the siblings earned their undergraduate degrees at Pitt.

“What I like about statistics is that it gives a framework to discuss questions in any topic you can imagine — business, neuroscience, pop culture, whatever. Statistics itself is both a science, because of the mathematical rigor involved, and an art, because of the creativity needed to look at a complicated problem from the right angle.”

Pfenning said her approach to teaching doesn’t vary much based on class size; she has taught courses ranging from 20 to 88 students. “I learn their names by routinely handing back papers individually in the five- or 10-minute period before class starts,” she said. “I always offer plenty of office hours and remind students regularly of my availability to help them.”

She said that teacher accessibility should be one of the staples of good teaching, along with organization; high standards combined with the flexibility of offering alternatives to students to overcome whatever setbacks confront them, and prompt feedback on assignments.

Pfenning also employs games, such as an in-class rock/scissors/paper tournament, to engage students. “I never introduce a game gratuitously. They all help explain abstract ideas, for example to illustrate how the basic rules of probability guide us toward solutions that are at times surprisingly counterintuitive,” she explained.

“My main goal is teaching students to see ‘the big picture,’” Pfenning said. “I have become increasingly aware of the role that our introductory statistics courses play both in students’ academic programs and in their professional lives after graduation. I resolved to teach students in such a way that they felt truly oriented throughout their intro stats course, understanding the broader purpose of each new topic as it was introduced, and comprehending afterwards what the entire course was about.”

—Peter Hart

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