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"An Opener of Doors"

By KRISTA WEIDNER
Photos by JOCELYN HELGERMAN

“Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Chances are you remember a teacher who changed your life—one who saw something in you that you didn’t see, one who encouraged and pushed you a little farther. The college is fortunate to have teachers like that—mentors who engage students in learning, capture their imaginations, and transform them into thinkers. Meet three faculty members who take different approaches to teaching but share a commitment to equipping students with the tools they need to succeed after college.

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Nikki Brown, Associate Professor of Wood Chemistry 

Nikki Brown believes everyone deserves a second chance—and that’s what she offers her students in her 400-level wood chemistry classes. “Traditionally, three high-stakes components—a midterm exam, a final exam, and a project—comprise a student’s final grade,” she says. “But if we focus on what students should know when they leave our class, does it matter if they know those things for the midterm, or when they complete the course? I believe in giving students more than one chance to demonstrate that they understand key concepts.” 

In Brown’s class, students can retake a test or quiz if they didn’t do well the first time. If a particular question stumped a student, Brown will tweak the question and give the student another chance to answer it. “Every student learns differently,” she says. “So I don’t limit them to just writing or drawing. I might ask them to build a molecular model and do a hands-on activity to demonstrate that they understand the structure of a compound or why a certain chemical reaction would or wouldn’t happen.” 

Not everyone agrees with Brown’s teaching philosophy, and that’s okay with her. “Some say it’s soft and too easy on students, but I believe this approach has merit,” she says. “In the end, my students still have to take responsibility and show initiative to earn the grade they want.” 

Brown also uses a technique she picked up from her own graduate adviser to keep her students’ attention. When energy is flagging midway through class, she’ll stop for a two-minute break, during which the group discusses a news story or something happening on campus. Tyler Dolak, a senior majoring in wood products, appreciates these two-minute breaks. “It gives us all a chance to learn about each other and hear each other’s opinions,” he says. 

“The breaks get them involved in a completely different topic,” Brown adds. “And when we get back to the lecture material, they have more energy to think about the science.”

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James Endres Howell, Coordinator of Undergraduate Advising, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences 

On James Endres Howell’s office door is a child-drawn sign featuring several renderings of the letter H. “My buddy Henry made that sign,” he explains, referring to his three-year-old son. “That’s so he can find my office when he visits me.” 

Howell teaches a first-year seminar called Mechanisms of Disease for students majoring in immunology and infectious disease and toxicology. First-year seminars are required for graduation at Penn State and serve as a sort of extended orientation. Howell devotes about a third of his seminar to orientation topics and the rest to major-related content. “The third and fourth years of these majors are incredibly specialized,” he explains. “To a freshman, those years seem a long way off, so in that first year we give students a taste of what the payoff will be. It helps motivate them and connect their basic science courses with the specialized learning that comes later.” 

Howell assigns each student two 20-minute presentations. Students may choose from a list of topics that include various diseases, drugs, and issues such as biosecurity and stem cell therapy. Howell says students often choose topics that are near and dear to their hearts. “In one case, I had a returning adult student. He was in a wheelchair—he’d been a roofer, fell off a roof, and lost use of his legs. He gave a presentation on stem cell therapy for spine lesions. He told the story of his injury and talked about his hope that he could benefit from stem cell therapy.” 

Olivia Francois, a freshman honors student majoring in immunology and infectious disease, says it was a challenge to pare down her presentation to 20 minutes. “The experience taught me a lot about choosing my words wisely and how to convey what is important in a speech,” she says. “I learned that I love public speaking—giving a successful presentation really boosts my confidence.” 

Howell says that becoming a father changed his view of teaching. “Ever since he was born, when I look at a student I see somebody’s Henry. And the stakes become even higher.”

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Dan T. Stearns, Professor of Landscape Contracting

Dan Stearns keeps an open-door policy at his office, and his students make good use of it. “I encourage informal visits from students,” says Stearns, who has taught landscape contracting since 1989. 

Stearns teaches two design studios for juniors and seniors. “I see myself as a mentor, encouraging students to be creative on their own,” he says. “I can teach them current technology, but if I can get them excited about learning—and teach them how to learn—that’s the key. I guide them and make sure they’re not going too far astray while allowing them to come up with something that will be functional and aesthetic and meet the client’s needs. If they can do that, they can attack any project, small or large.” 

Each year Stearns’s students work on a project on campus. In past years they have worked on the front entrance of the Ag Administration Building, the patio and plantings in front of Tyson Building, and the Hintz Alumni Gardens. The current senior class recently presented planting plans to managers of the Arboretum. Through this work students gain project management skills as they schedule their projects and coordinate with suppliers and the campus landscape crew. 

According to Stearns, students learn a lot from one another. “Somebody who’s already built a brick patio will show a classmate how it’s done,” he says. “They take great pride in their accomplishments, and I hope in the future they will bring their kids and grandkids back to campus and tell them, ‘I built that.’” 

Sometimes it takes a while for students to catch on to Stearns’s approach to teaching. “In the mid-1990s, one of my students came to my office right before graduation. After going through the normal pleasantries he told me that he didn’t think he’d gotten his money’s worth. I was quite taken aback and I said, ‘Are you telling me you don’t think you’ve learned anything?’ He said, ‘Oh, no, I’ve learned a lot—but I had to figure it out all by myself.’ My response was, ‘That’s great! You just made my day.’ He looked at me and after a moment it dawned on him—he’d just summed up my philosophy of teaching.”