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March 5, 2009

2 win Bellet A&S teaching awards

Gretchen Holtzapple Bender of the Department of History of Art and Architecture and Joseph J. Grabowski of the Department of Chemistry have been named winners of the 2009 Tina and David Bellet Arts and Sciences Teaching Excellence Award.

School of Arts and Sciences alumnus David Bellet and his wife, Tina, established the award in 1998 to recognize outstanding and innovative undergraduate teaching in the school.

Full-time faculty who have taught in Arts and Sciences during the past three years are eligible. An awards committee appointed by the Arts and Sciences associate dean for undergraduate studies evaluates nominees’ teaching skills based on student-teaching and peer evaluations, student testimonials and dossiers submitted by the nominees. Each award recipient receives a prize of $5,000.

Gretchen Bender

Bender, a lecturer in modern art and architecture, has been the department’s undergraduate advising director since 2002.

Among the classes she has offered are an introductory history of world art, several courses in 18th- and 19th-century European art, research and methodology seminars on feminism and art history, and Romantic landscape.

She also serves on the Pitt Arts and Sciences writing board.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in art history, cum laude, at Franklin and Marshall College in 1991, a master’s degree at American University in 1994 and a PhD in German art of the Romantic era at Bryn Mawr College in 2001.

She was awarded the Doris Sill Carland Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Bryn Mawr College, and at Franklin and Marshall College won the Robert M. and Elizabeth Hatton Landis Art Award and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

Bender is working on a book titled “Tracing Caroline: Gender and the Landscape Practice of C.D. Friedrich.”

Winning the Bellet award is “tremendously flattering,” Bender said, crediting in part supportive colleagues who submitted letters on her behalf as well as her “brilliant and creative” students who add excitement to her classroom. “It’s fun to get up every morning and walk into the classroom,” she said.

“What motivates and excites me to teach is the ability to get to know students individually,” Bender said. “I’m challenged to find ways to make the course content exciting and relevant to students.”

The task is easier when the teacher knows the individual students, she said. In a small class, knowing the students is not so hard, she said. In an auditorium class with hundreds of students, the undertaking is more difficult but not impossible. “There are ways to create an environment where learning is stimulating and exciting,” she said, adding that it’s her practice to “come out from behind the podium and converse with them in addition to lecturing at them.”

Bender said she favors an open and communicative classroom atmosphere. “I have the expectation in the classroom that we’re all learning and collaborating together,” she said, stressing that her students are able to help her see a different point of view. “I’m hopefully inspiring them to know they have their own critical voice,” she said, adding that simply because she’s read more or devoted more time to her subject matter than her students may have, “It doesn’t mean their point of view is less valued.”

In her dossier, Bender cited a student’s observation that she displayed passion, knowledge of her subject and accessibility. “My desire to enter the classroom with a sense of humility would seemingly run counter to the perceived identity of the college professor, the authoritative scholar who bestows knowledge,” Bender stated, adding “a mastery of one’s research specialty and discipline can be communicated and shared most effectively through passion, encouragement and approachability.”

Although she initially planned a career in studio arts, “I always had the sense teaching would be exciting,” Bender said.

She said she had a fine role model in her father, a physician who taught in the State University of New York system. “I grew up having students at our house,” she said. Among other teachers who influenced her was the Franklin and Marshall art history professor whose energy and excitement in teaching the art history classes that Bender “had to take” helped her instead choose a career in art history.

She plans to use the Bellet award money to travel to see more of the things she teaches about.

Bender said she is glad to see undergraduate teaching being recognized through the Bellet award. “At large research universities sometimes undergraduates can be sort of an afterthought,” she said. “I’m delighted that’s not the case at Pitt.”

Joseph Grabowski

Grabowski, director of undergraduate research in Arts and Sciences, came to Pitt’s chemistry department in 1991 from a position at Harvard.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, magna cum laude, at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in 1978 and a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Colorado in 1983.
His research focuses on physical-organic chemistry and analytical mass spectrometry. Current research in his lab is directed toward defining and utilizing the fundamental dynamics of organic reaction mechanisms and the intrinsic properties of reactive intermediates.

Grabowski received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2003, the same year he received a Carnegie Science Center Award for Excellence.

Among his publications are articles on active learning, experiential learning and mentoring.

In his dossier, Grabowski compared his way of teaching chemistry as a smorgasbord from which students must choose their own “plateful for success” from opportunities based on traditional methods as well as new technologies.

“Students select from lecture, textbook, computer animations, virtual laboratories, practice problems, web-graded exercises, old exams, group study, workshops, tutoring and office hours to find the mix that works for them,” he wrote. While each student is different, Grabowski stated, “With the necessary effort, every student can master organic chemistry at the level of their commitment.”

Getting students to make that commitment is a challenge that faculty must not concede, he wrote.

“We do our students disservice by designing courses to low expectations,” he stated.

“Our students are capable of more than they are willing to admit to, and perhaps much more than they often fervently believe they are capable of.”

Grabowski told the University Times that he finds Pitt students amazing and more engaged than ever, yet too often willing to settle for less than they can accomplish for the sake of an A on their transcripts. He advocates a step-by-step teaching process that gradually removes support until students can stand on their own with confidence.

Internalizing the basic principles of chemistry is particularly important because each course builds upon a prior one. “There are things you have to take and master,” he said, adding that what he asks students to do is “think, not regurgitate.”

The ability to apply knowledge is crucial because in addition to scientific principles, chemistry contains a lot of art, Grabowski said. Just as in medicine doctors don’t know what symptoms their next patient will present or in baseball a batter doesn’t know what sort of pitch is coming next, students must have the confidence to handle the next problem.

“The next situation you’re going to be presented with is going to be a new situation. You’ve got to apply what you’ve learned.”

He noted that he always has been an active learner. “I’d rather solve a chemistry problem than read about it,” he said. For his students, the text and lecture are “sort of redundant” and they may choose to emphasize one or the other. While they must attend the recitations and work practice problems, the remaining choices of how to get to the necessary skill level are up to them, he said.

It’s all very different from when he was in school, Grabowski said. The professor entered the classroom, pulled a piece of chalk from his pocket and lectured, never asking or taking questions from the class.

Although he entered college intending to become a doctor, as a sophomore chemistry major he became a research assistant. “I discovered you can do that the rest of your life,” and ditched his plans for medicine. “I really, really liked playing in the lab. I’ve never been sorry about that.”

In choosing to attend graduate school, Grabowski said he considered his professors’ jobs and thought, “I really like what you do.” He also naively thought, “I could do your teaching better than you,” he said.

“I had no idea how hard they were working. When I started teaching, I learned to appreciate what my professors put forth.”

Grabowski said he began looking to the education literature and pondering how to teach while training graduate students to be TAs and to lead recitations at Harvard.

Since then, he’s devoted himself to understanding what the experts are doing and what current research from cognitive neuroscientists and learning specialists says about how students learn. Conversations with colleagues within his discipline and beyond also have been helpful.

At Pitt, he said the climate in the School of Arts and Sciences has been supportive of improving undergraduate teaching. He cited teaching excellence lectures, Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education workshops, faculty article and book discussions on teaching, the annual CIDDE Teaching Excellence Fair and presentations from Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence grant winners all as places he picks up tips on teaching. “There are a lot of great teachers here,” he said. “A lot of people have made this environment what it is.”

— Kimberly K. Barlow

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