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March 30, 2006

Two profs win A&S Bellet awards

Two faculty members — one in biological sciences and one in computer science — have been named winners of the 2006 Tina and David Bellet A&S Teaching Excellence Awards.

The annual teaching awards were established in 1998 with a $200,000 donation from the Bellet family to recognize outstanding and innovative teaching in undergraduate Arts and Sciences (A&S).

A committee appointed by the A&S associate dean for Undergraduate Studies evaluates teaching skills as evidenced by student-teaching and peer evaluations, student testimonials and dossiers submitted by nominees. Full-time faculty who have taught in Arts and Sciences over the past three years are eligible. Each award recipient receives a cash prize of $2,000 and a grant of $3,000 in support of his or her teaching.

The Bellet award recipients will be honored at a dinner April 8 at the Holiday Inn, University Center.

This year’s winners are: Anthony Bledsoe, lecturer in biological sciences, and Daniel Mossé, professor of computer science.


Anthony Bledsoe

Bledsoe, who came to Pitt as an instructor in 1988, was promoted to lecturer in 1990. He has taught a number of undergraduate courses here, including Ornithology, Population Biology, Evolution, and Ecology, building on his primary research interests in avian systematics and evolution.

Bledsoe serves as the supervisor for the department’s ecology and vertebrate morphology laboratories. He also is a research associate with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Following this week’s announcement of the awards, Bledsoe said, “When I heard I won this award, I was flabbergasted and very honored. I love teaching. I love knowing about things and sharing them. That’s my real motivation. But I want to make it clear that this award also acknowledges people who do the work and that is the students.”

Bledsoe believes in being an advocate for his students at all levels related to their intellectual, personal and professional development.

“I don’t want to make too much of this, but I prefer to think of my students almost as peers,” he said. “Sure, I’m better trained, but they’re getting there. My fundamental teaching goal is to advance my students’ goals in all these areas.”

Because he holds a non-tenure-stream position, Bledsoe’s primary duties are as an instructor, he said. “However, I’ve always felt that the distinction between research and teaching is rather artificial. One informs the other. I find, for example, that in my classes students ask the best questions, such as: ‘Tell me about how something is structured.’ I may discover that the answers to those questions are not available because no one has researched that area, and it gives me incentive to look into it more deeply. Eventually, it’s something I can incorporate into my teaching. I also attend as many research seminars in the department and in other areas as I can to keep up on the latest research. I want to be as current as I can in my courses.”

Teaching always has been fulfilling for him personally, Bledsoe added. “I get great satisfaction in seeing students become interested in sharing how things work. I love having the opportunity to have a positive impact. That’s rare in this society. In fact, I think we, as teachers, have an obligation to use that opportunity to its maximum effectiveness.”

In support of Bledsoe’s nomination for the 2006 Bellet award, Graham Hatfull, chair of the biological sciences department, wrote, “Tony is a dedicated, dynamic and gifted teacher. Perhaps the best indication of all is that his students love him. He is a key leader in our Biology Teaching Club, and provides leadership in our educational efforts.

Bledsoe’s impact on undergraduate teaching extends beyond biology courses, Hatfull added. “His passion for teaching, and teaching with excellence, drives him to seek out opportunities to instruct non-science audiences” through the Freshman Studies I course.

Colleague Lydia B. Daniels, director of undergraduate programs in the department, stated, “Dr. Bledsoe is probably the most versatile instructor in the department. He is always unabashedly enthusiastic about his topic, pointing out the specifics that he finds ‘very cool’ and telling the students why this idea captivates him. He is open and friendly and receptive to student questions. I believe that [his] willingness to be available when the students need him most and his low-key manner communicate his willingness to be a partner in the learning experience rather than a judge.”

Some of Bledsoe’s former students also praised his teaching in supporting materials.

Scott J. Kohler, now a medical student at Temple, took three courses and a lab with Bledsoe in his undergraduate days. “I would like to express how important his teaching has been to me in my career in college and beyond,” Kohler wrote to the Bellet awards committee. “With both the difficult concepts, such as phylogenics and embryology, and the large amount of material … it is crucial to have the concepts well explained and available for later review. In each of the classes he taught, Dr. Bledsoe took the time to carefully and thoroughly explain all of the material to his students while maintaining a teaching pace that still allowed for adequate notes to be taken.”

Prior to coming to Pitt, Bledsoe served as a visiting faculty member at Wesleyan University (1985-1988) and as an adjunct faculty member at Southern Connecticut Community College in 1984, the year he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University.


Daniel Mossé

Mossé, who joined the Pitt faculty as an instructor in 1992, was named assistant professor in 1993, associate professor in 1998 and professor in 2004. He also holds a secondary appointment in Pitt’s computer engineering program and is an affiliated faculty member of the Center for Latin American Studies.

Mossé has taught a number of undergraduate courses over his Pitt career, including Introduction to Operating Systems, Computers and Networks, Assembly Language Programming, Systems Programming, Social Implications of Computing, Advanced Systems Software and Freshman Studies I.

“I love teaching and I am fascinated by computers and computer science,” Mossé said. “My teaching philosophy is to use the classroom as a stage to facilitate learning, connect with the students and allow them to absorb the material — not just memorize it — at a personal level.”

Not that his courses are ever easy, Mossé added. “I start my courses telling the students that they will have to work very hard, but it will be worth it. I learn everybody’s name in the first two or three weeks and use questions and answers throughout my courses, first to let me know who’s keeping up with the material, but also to get students to think about questions, to be ready with answers even if I don’t call on them. They have to be ‘on their toes.’ Eventually, they learn to ask questions themselves.”

Because initially undergraduate students often think of computer science as boring or something to be dreaded, especially the required courses, Mossé presents the material with a positive and optimistic outlook. He also injects humor into his lessons. “Humor is one of my trademarks,” he said. “Funny analogies work best to explain a point or a joke related to the subject of the class works best when a break is needed. This all culminates in one point: It enables me to reach the student at different levels and transcend the classroom experience, sharing with them that if you are in a situation, you had better make the best of it. This attitude makes their time in the course a better experience.”

Mossé strives to keep up with the latest developments in his subject area. “Computer science is a very fast-moving field. Even though the principles are the same, there is always a new set of things to learn, the latest techniques. I want to be able to teach my students ‘what’s hot,’” he said.

Mossé also has mentored several undergraduates in research projects. “The top undergrad computer science students at Pitt are sensational and often better than many of our graduate students. That’s why I like to offer the top undergrads a chance to do a research project with me that will introduce them to what graduate study is. It’s especially satisfying to see more American students going into grad study, because we need more Americans in computer science,” he maintained.

“I was thrilled to win this award. Ecstatic. But I want to say that this award does not recognize only me, that it is an award that honors the whole department and the combined efforts of the faculty,” he said. “You can see it in the interaction of the faculty, in the continuous feedback. And the department is very supportive of our teaching efforts. It’s a wonderful environment to be teaching in.”

In a letter to the Bellet committee, jointly signed by Rami Melhem, professor and chair of the computer science department, and departmental colleagues Panos Chrysanthis and Kirk Pruhs, Mossé was praised as a successful researcher, with an impressive publication and external funding record, who also is active in the computer science professional community.

“However,” the three professors wrote, “his success as a researcher did not diminish his dedication to education. He sincerely believes that education is the primary mission of faculty members and he does not pass up any opportunities to improve his teaching effectiveness, as well as the effectiveness of the education process in the department.”

Mossé’s colleagues noted further that he had won numerous departmental awards for the highest overall teaching effectiveness in student evaluations.

“Daniel’s lectures are innovative and creative,” the letter continued. “His ability to convey to a group of students his industriousness, passion and accuracy for research has motivated many students in our department to strive for higher and loftier goals. One of the factors that serve him well is that he is humorous and good-natured: Most of his comments are given and received with respect.”

Former student Regis R. Colwell recalled the high level of energy in Mossé’s courses, a number of which he took a decade ago. “OS (Operating Systems) is a challenging course, but he made it entertaining. I can still remember his analogies of complex topics to fights with his siblings over the batter from his mother’s mixing bowl. Relating the inner workings of a computer to things in real life helped me understand why these things were important before we even looked into the technical details,” Colwell said. “To this day, he still stands out as one of the greatest influences in my academic studies.”

Mossé’s main research interest is in distributed systems, more specifically the allocation of resources (computing and network resources) in the realm of real-time, power management, security and fault tolerance.

Mossé earned his Ph.D. in computer science in 1993 at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he also held a number of positions prior to coming to Pitt.

—Peter Hart

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