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February 8, 2007

Five win chancellor teaching awards

Winners of the 2007 chancellor’s awards for distinguished teaching have been announced.

Recipients are: Kathleen M. Blee, Department of Sociology, School of Arts and Sciences (A&S); Marek J. Druzdzel, information science and technology program, School of Information Sciences (SIS); Marilyn T. Hravnak, Department of Acute and Tertiary Care, School of Nursing; Jeremy Levy, Department of Physics and Astronomy, A&S, and Philip E. Smith, Department of English, A&S.

Each award carries a $2,000 prize plus a $3,000 grant for the recipient’s work, administered through the home school. Winners’ names will be inscribed on a plaque in the William Pitt Union, and a reception will be held in their honor this spring.

Together with the chancellor’s annual faculty award winners for distinguished research and distinguished public service, which have not yet been announced, the faculty teaching award winners will be recognized at Pitt’s honors convocation on Feb. 23.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg sent congratulatory letters to the winners, drawing on the information provided in support of the winners’ nominations and the letters of recommendation from peers and others to cite some of their accomplishments.

“The very existence of this award underscores the high institutional priority that we assign to our teaching responsibilities, and your individual efforts stand as an inspiring example of excellence in the role of University teacher,” Nordenberg told the winners.

• Kathleen M. Blee, professor of sociology, also holds appointments in history and the women’s studies program, which she directed from 1996 to 2001.

Blee was cited by the chancellor for outstanding contributions to teaching in sociology and women’s studies. The chancellor wrote, “The variety of courses you have developed in response to the needs of undergraduate and graduate students is impressive, and the integration of your innovative teaching, dedicated advising and highly respected research make you a model of academic excellence for the University community.”

Nordenberg cited Blee as a major influence on her students’ successful pursuit of professional goals through her development of research methodology and skills-oriented writing courses, her supervision of undergraduate theses and independent research projects, her use of undergraduate research interns and the creation of non-credit advisee workshops for dissertation students.

Blee, who joined the Pitt faculty in 1996, is a 2004 winner of the chancellor’s distinguished research award.

Last month, Pitt named her a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in recognition of extraordinary scholarly attainment.

Blee is the author of several books, including “Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

She was elected to the Governing Council of the American Sociological Association for 2004-07 and won the YWCA-Pittsburgh Racial Justice Award in 2004, among many awards and accolades.

At Pitt, Blee has served on numerous committees including the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns, which she chaired in 1997-98.

She earned her PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1982.

“I was very honored to receive this award, given the many excellent teachers at Pitt,” Blee said. “The existence of this award underscores Pitt’s commitment to excellent teaching.”

Blee is particularly committed to teaching that spills outside the classroom, especially in ways that undergraduates can be engaged in research. “I have been impressed by the synergy of teaching and research that results when students become involved in faculty research,” she said. “The students whom I have sponsored as interns in my research have not only developed the skills and confidence to develop significant research projects of their own, but have provided me with new ways of thinking about my own research.”

• Marek J. Druzdzel, associate professor at SIS, heads a research group, housed at the Decision Systems Laboratory, that is dedicated to maintaining a research and teaching environment for faculty and students interested in the development of techniques and systems that support decision making under uncertainty.

Druzdzel also is on the faculty of Pitt’s intelligent systems program. He has authored a number of book chapters and has published widely in professional journals.

He joined the SIS faculty in 1993 after receiving his PhD in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University. At Pitt, he has taught courses including “Decision Analysis and Decision Support Systems,” “Data Structures and Programming Techniques” and “Database Management Systems.”

In his letter, Chancellor Nordenberg stated that the award honors Druzdzel for creating a challenging learning environment for undergraduate and graduate students. Druzdzel’s integration of research and teaching — by allowing students at all levels to participate in the Decision Systems Laboratory — was lauded by the chancellor.

“Over 13 years of teaching information science courses, you have participated in a number of University activities that have enriched your teaching and contributed to your classroom energy and success in balancing theory and practice,” Nordenberg wrote. “Being a role model for students permeates your academic life, and your engagement with them both inside and outside the classroom enriches their educational experience.”

Druzdzel said he was deeply honored to win the teaching award. “Becoming a good teacher myself has been one of my most desired professional skills,” he said. “The best way of educating first-class scholars and teachers is to be one in the first place. No verbal encouragement will work better in motivating students to work hard than having them see their teacher in the lab or in the library late at night or on the weekend or responding immediately to their email message sent at 2 a.m.”

He summarized his teaching philosophy: Teaching is an important part of academic life and should be integrated into it; educating good scholars requires being a good scholar in the first place, and in order to inspire students to work to the best of their ability, the teacher needs to care a lot about them.

“I give my students the best of myself, but I also expect the best of them,” he said. “Students, no matter how ‘cool’ they try to look or behave, are thirsty for knowledge and in the long run they value and respect teachers who help them in obtaining it.”

Making material practical also is one of his goals, Druzdzel said. “I try to do everything that I can in structuring my courses and guiding my students so that they see that the material and the ideas that they are exposed to are useful in practice. My Decision Analysis and Decision Support Systems course shows the relevance of theories of decision making to daily lives. My students have consistently indicated that the course had a profound impact on their everyday thinking and decision making.”

• Marilyn T. Hravnak is an assistant professor and coordinator of the acute care nurse practitioner program in the nursing school’s Department of Acute/Tertiary Care.

She also teaches in the medical-surgical clinical nurse specialist program, is the primary teacher for “Management of Acutely and Critically Ill Adults” and teaches “Physical Diagnosis” and “Pathophysiology.”

Within her courses, Hravnak utilizes the high-fidelity human simulator laboratory, in which students have the opportunity to apply didactic content and utilize critical thinking skills in simulated patient-care scenarios.

Nordenberg stated, “You were instrumental in developing courses and securing state approval for this important advanced care specialty. Students appreciate your clinically relevant lectures, your ability to make difficult concepts understandable and your respectful and reassuring supervision in their clinical setting.”

The chancellor added that Hravnak’s use of realistic laboratory simulation techniques prepares students to be skilled advanced practice nurses for critically ill patients.

“You have received well-deserved honors from several national academies and from your school,” Nordenberg added.

As a member of the American Association of Critical Care Nurses advanced practice workgroup, Hravnak contributed to the development of that organization’s Scope of Practice and Standards of Care for Acute and Critical Care Clinical Nurse Specialists.

She has been a member of the Allied Health Professionals credentials review committee of UPMC Health System since 1999 and a member of the Institutional Review Board since 2000.

Among her honors are induction as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing and the American College of Critical Care Medicine’s Society of Critical Care Medicine.

Hravnak, who earned her PhD at Pitt’s School of Nursing, said, “To have been selected from such a large and prestigious pool of faculty for recognition is an honor and a privilege. I believe that having this award emphasizes the great value placed upon teaching here at Pitt.”

Hravnak has more than 30 years of critical care nursing experience. She has collaborated in the design of curriculum guidelines and program standards for the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties.

“My primary goal as an educator of nurses is to not teach knowledge, but to teach thinking,” Hravnak said. “I believe that with every patient care problem they encounter, they should be able to think through the pathophysiologic process underlying the problem, and the differential diagnoses attached to the problem, and then exercise critical thinking and advanced assessment skills to move from diagnostic entropy to diagnostic certainty.”

Hravnak noted the supportive systems within the nursing school and collaborative relationships with faculty in the School of Medicine, as well as with UPMC hospitals that support clinical practica training. “All of these factors work together to help us to produce exceptionally well prepared graduates who are highly valued in the employment setting,” she said.

• Jeremy Levy, professor of physics, was honored by the chancellor for “pioneering and innovative contributions” to the teaching of physics, especially in large introductory classes.

“You excel at motivating non-physical science majors by using peer instruction and a variety of other active learning methods to engage students and increase their appreciation of how physics is relevant to their everyday lives,” Nordenberg wrote.

In addition, the chancellor noted that Levy’s enthusiasm for teaching physics extends to mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, as well as to outreach activities to elementary, high school and prospective college students.

He further lauded Levy’s success in advancing excellent teaching by using cutting-edge technology, student feedback mechanisms and computer simulations.

“Your creative videos and extra credit assignments help to realign students’ attitudes and encourage them to apply physics concepts in a larger context,” Nordenberg wrote.

Levy told the University Times, “I was honored to be nominated and delighted to have won the teaching award. I feel I’m naturally drawn to be a teacher.

“Over my 11 years of teaching here, I’ve learned a lot from my students. I’ve found if you’re just talking or lecturing, it doesn’t have much of an impact, so I do my best to keep them engaged, including in the large intro courses.”

Levy also has participated as a mentor in Arts and Sciences’ “First Experience in Research” program since its inception four years ago.

Levy, whose research focuses on exploring novel phenomena in solid state systems in order to provide the physical foundation for future technologies, also won a 2004 chancellor’s distinguished research award.

“Winning that award too, I think, shows that there is no conflict and nothing mutually exclusive about research and teaching. They go hand in hand,” Levy said.

Levy also directs the Center for Oxide-Semiconductor Materials for Quantum Computation, bolstering Pitt’s reputation in nano-scale research and quantum physics, and he has published widely in these fields.

He earned his PhD in 1993 at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

• Philip E. Smith, associate professor of English, works primarily on 19th- and 20th-century literary and culture studies involving Oscar Wilde, literature and science, science fiction, drama and the institution of English teaching. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in these and related areas.

Nordenberg praised Smith for his dedication to teaching at Pitt for 36 years. “Your meticulously designed literature and writing courses encourage critical thinking, and your sequenced assignments characterized by careful feedback teach students the value of re-thinking and revising their written work,” the chancellor wrote.

“Students recognize your exceptional dedication to helping them realize their full potential, and colleagues are appreciative of the innovative curricular reforms you have spearheaded over the years,” Nordenberg stated. “Your work has been acknowledged by the Associated Departments of English through their highest service award.”

Smith is co-author and co-editor of “Oscar Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making”; he has published articles on Wilde, on Pitt’s cultural studies curriculum and on literary figures such as August Wilson, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein and Charles Olson. He also is editor of “Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde,” which is forthcoming from Publications.

He received a Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Service Award in 1999.

Smith said, “I was flattered to win this award. It’s significant to recognize teaching. This is a research university and that is the primary reward system for faculty.”

He said he wished there were even more ways that the University recognized teaching and service. “It would be better and more collegial, but I’m glad these awards exist.”

Smith said, “Teaching for me has always been connected to learning. I learn from my teaching as much as from my research, even though my research on Oscar Wilde, for example, mutually informs my teaching.”

Teaching is sometimes like planting a seed that grows slowly; other times it’s like setting a time bomb, creating a student’s epiphany, he said. “Sometimes there’s more immediate improvement; sometimes it takes somewhat longer to develop. My goal is for students to always do their best work at the end of the term. I want to stretch them, to see them revise their work and to solve problems along the way.”

He said he de-emphasized assessment in favor of a student’s working to the best of his or her ability, regardless of the course level. “But it’s also important to provide skills to help students reflect on what they are doing,” he added.

“It is gratifying to see a student who wants to go on to a career as an English teacher — God help them — but it’s just as gratifying to see the critical and analytical writing and thinking abilities help them in other career choices,” he said.

Smith praised his departmental colleagues as caring and supportive. “They also have helped with curriculum [development] that has focused on writing in connection with studying literature, which is both beneficial and reinforcing to good teaching.”

—Peter Hart

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