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Zebulon Pearce awards honor teaching excellence at ASU

Philip Christensen, 2014 Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Awardee
April 21, 2014

The Zebulon Pearce Distinguished Teaching Awards were established in memory of Zebulon Pearce, who graduated from Territorial Normal School at Tempe (now ASU) with teacher's credentials in 1899. These awards recognize teaching excellence in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The three awardees to be honored for their contributions in natural sciences, humanities and social sciences for 2014 are:

• Philip Christensen, Regents’ Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration
• Edward Mallot, assistant professor, Department of English
• Natalie Wilkens, assistant professor, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics

In addition, the college also awarded Mariana Bahtchevanova, senior lecturer in the School of International Letters and Cultures, the CLAS Outstanding Lecturer Award for 2014.

“The college has dozens and dozens of top-flight teachers across all fields. But amid all of this talent, there are exceptional teachers, and we recognize them with this award,” says Patrick Kenney, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies.

A noted planetary geologist, Christensen came to Arizona State University in 1981 and is the Ed and Helen Korrick Professor of Geological Sciences. The designer and principal investigator for instruments on past and current NASA missions to Mars, Christensen says his approach to teaching is to engage students as much as possible in the experimental design, generation and interpretation of real data.

"For example," he says, "in my freshman course the students design, build, fly and analyze a system. I don't give them an approach, but instead specify a science objective.

"Most teams end up building some type of system to launch a camera into the air," he explains. "It's remarkable how different the approaches are that the student teams take. Some use balloons, others use water rockets, catapults, CO2 cannons or kites." The camera timing systems are equally inventive, he says, ranging from melting ice and rubber bands to kitchen timers.

Christensen says, "The point of this project is to create an open-ended objective that encourages students to explore and learn what they decide they need to know in order to solve a real scientific question."

One student who took the course says, "By the end of the course, I realized that I was hooked on exploring earth and space. I'm now planning to be a teacher upon graduation, so I can share my excitement about earth sciences with a new generation."

"For me," says Christensen, "education is about inspiring students to learn on their own. Our job as teachers is to give them the tools and point them in the right direction. But then we must encourage them to do more than they think they can, and instill in them the excitement of learning and discovering."

Humanities matter

Selected as the 2014 distinguished teacher in the humanities, Mallot says that his first objective is to inspire more global, multifaceted thinking. He teaches 20th century British literature, classes on postcolonial writers and sexuality studies to both undergraduate and graduate students.

Literary and cultural studies matter, Mallot believes, because they “help students pry open their world a little bit more, to experience cultures, traditions and values different from their own.”

One student writes: “Dr. Mallot is one of the most inspiring and intelligent teachers I’ve ever had. He always asks the kinds of question that provoke students to think in more depth about the texts. His methodology led to an engaged classroom, where every student felt valued in discussion. I feel that I learned a lot about how to teach effectively from him.”

“Dr. Mallot is a superb teacher,” says Mark Lussier, chair of ASU’s Department of English. “His mastery of the materials in his field, which includes a vast geographical range – from Southeast Asia and India to European and American postcolonial work – is beyond dispute, and his ability to challenge his students through this material, even as he inspires their highest efforts, is a finely balanced talent much sought, but less often observed.”

Social sciences leader

A relative newcomer to the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics and ASU’s social sciences program – ranked 9th in the U.S. – Wilkens has quickly proven to be an insightful mentor and exceptional teacher. A developmental psychologist who studies children’s socio-emotional development, she is also an expert in statistical modeling. Wilkens reaches a broad student demographic in her courses by interweaving current pop culture figures and events with statistics, bringing what is a complex topic for many to a “down-to-earth level.”

Among Wilkens’ letters of support are many who spoke of how she “puts her heart and soul into advising graduate students.” From how to write expert publications, how to interview and negotiate job contracts, they speak of how she has guided them through the challenges of developing a university career.

“She encouraged us to be brave and confident,” writes one graduate. “She is one of the top professors of my university career” and “one of the few talented professors that could make a comparison between rapper P. Diddy and p-values,” said others, now in successful careers.

'Outstanding Lecturer'

The sole awardee in the category of “Outstanding Lecturer” is French and linguistics expert Bahtchevanova. Noted for her hard work, intelligence, mastery of multiple languages and exceptional teaching, she has taught undergraduate lower and upper division, graduate courses and actively supported the annual School of International Letters and Cultures Language Fair that draws more than 1,000 high schools to campus.

Fascinated by the scientific study of human languages and the art of teaching, she says her approach pushes students to learn critical thinking skills by investigating questions about important aspects of language: how we produce and interpret language sounds, how we create and use words and sentences in different contexts, how we learn language, why bilinguals codeswitch, why we make “errors” in speech and writing, or why languages change. Her students said that she “deeply cares about our success” and that “Dr. Bahtchevanova has allowed me to realize that ‘class’ is never over and that ‘learning’ can never be stopped.”

Award recipients, including the Gary S. Krahenbuhl Difference Maker Award winner, professor Madeline Spring, will be honored at a faculty awards luncheon and at convocation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to be held at 8 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., May 15, at Wells Fargo Arena.