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March 6, 2014

Bellet teaching awards announced

Rick A. Relyea, professor in biological sciences and director of the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, and Charles E. Jones, lecturer and Bachelor of Science programs adviser in geology and planetary science, are the recipients of the 2014 Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Awards.

The awards, which recognize outstanding and innovative teaching in undergraduate studies in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, were established by Dietrich school alumnus David Bellet and his wife, Tina, in 1998 and endowed in 2008 with a $1.5 million gift.

Full-time Pittsburgh campus faculty members who have taught undergraduates in the Dietrich school for at least three years are eligible. Faculty members must receive at least three nominations in order to be invited to submit a dossier for consideration to the awards committee. Winners each receive a $5,000 award.

Teaching excellence is evaluated based on how the candidate:

  • Communicates subject matter to students of varied backgrounds and skill levels;
  • Encourages high standards of attainment for all undergraduate students;
  • Advises and mentors students and expands intellectual development beyond the classroom;
  • Has influenced undergraduates, colleagues or departmental instruction, and
  • Has integrated scholarship with teaching.

Relyea and Jones will be honored March 26 at a private dinner and reception at the University Club.

Charlie JonesCharles E. Jones

Jones earned his bachelor’s degree in geology at Stanford in 1988 and his PhD in geology at Oxford in 1992 as a Rhodes scholar. He joined the Pitt faculty in 2000.

He teaches a range of geology and planetary science courses and leads several field trips each year.

In his dossier, Jones stated that his approach to teaching centers on making lectures, labs, homework and field trips as engaging and effective as possible and to self-assess in order to learn where he himself can improve.

Jones stated that he aims to engage students of varied interests and backgrounds. In introductory classes, he highlights concepts important for future homeowners, landowners and concerned citizens. For students who are interested in material that has direct, practical benefits for future employment, he highlights topics applicable to petroleum exploration, environmental geology and other professions in the field.

He uses his own enthusiasm for the subject matter as well. “I am motivated by a love of nature so I frequently stop a lecture just to emphasize how cool something is,” he stated, adding that he highlights newly published science in his teaching “to emphasize the many exciting areas of research within the Earth sciences” in hopes of engaging students and inspiring the best ones to go on to graduate school.

He noted that many of the students he has advised and instructed conduct research projects and about half of those for whom he has data went on to graduate school. And for graduates for whom he has data, 38 percent got jobs as geologists. “While my role in their overall success is small, my job as adviser and instructor in a number of crucial classes does give me a disproportionate opportunity to get students to think early and specifically about their futures. Thus, I do take disproportionate pride in their success,” he stated.

Rick RelyeaRick A. Relyea

Relyea completed his bachelor’s degree in environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York-Syracuse in 1989, going on to earn a master’s degree in wildlife science at Texas Tech in 1992 and his PhD in biology at the University of Michigan.

He joined the Pitt faculty as an assistant professor in 1999 and was promoted to associate professor in 2005 and full professor in 2009.

Relyea received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award in 2005. In 2007, he became director of Pitt’s Pymatuning Lab of Ecology.

In his dossier, Relyea described how he changed his teaching methods to engage students in active learning in his ecology classes. Initially conducting class in a traditional lecture style, he decided to convert his lectures to PowerPoint, including photos and videos, and hand out copies to allow students to spend more time listening and discussing rather than copying notes. He added examples of how ecology was linked to students’ everyday lives, including links with medicine for the pre-med students in his classes. He further engaged students by moving from behind the podium to connect with them in the lecture hall.

When it came to developing a new animal behavior course, Relyea decided to use the Socratic method. “One key to the course’s success is that the students do not take notes,” he stated. “They soon learn that the time that they normally spend as stenographers can be spent having broad and deep discussions about how scientists think through scientific problems. Rather than learning lists of facts that they can regurgitate and soon forget after an exam, they are actively engaged and learn to think critically, which is an incredibly valuable skill that they will retain for the rest of their life.”

Relyea has mentored more than 100 undergraduate students and has trained 16 students supported by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates. He has supervised 11 PhD students.

As director of Pitt’s Pymatuning field station, Relyea has expanded the number of universities involved in its educational consortium from four to 10 and doubled undergraduate enrollment in its field courses. In addition, Relyea hosts high school teachers in his laboratory each summer through an NSF research experience for teachers grant.

—Kimberly K. Barlow