Andrew Baxter, associate teaching professor of mathematics, and Jacqueline Bortiatynski, associate teaching professor of chemistry and director of the Penn State Center for Excellence in Science Education, have been selected as two of the six recipients of the 2019 Penn State George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award, named after Penn State’s seventh president, honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level.
Baxter aims to create a classroom environment where students play a key role in the learning process and discussion.
“A teacher’s actions at the front of a classroom matter only insofar as they impact students’ minds,” Baxter said. “This philosophy forces that change of perspective. Rather than ask ‘how should I explain a topic,’ I ask ‘how does the student learn this idea.’ With this in mind, I plan each element of a course from the perspective of the desired outcomes, and what student experiences would best produce those outcomes.”
He describes his role as teacher as creating experiences that promote learning, rather than just explaining to the class.
“Dr. Baxter values learning over deadlines and grades, believing that every student can succeed if given the chance to,” one of his students said. “He cares most about his student’s comfort with the material. He will go out of his way spending extra time checking on his students’ progress and to make class interesting, using relevant and funny scenarios that make the method stick out.”
As an associate teaching professor in the math department at University Park, Baxter pushes himself and colleagues to grow as an educator. In all he has worked with math teachers in some form at almost every level.
As the director of the Pennsylvania Math Initiative he works with elementary school teachers, offering workshops in collaboration with math education faculty. He teaches courses for secondary education majors and undergraduate learning assistants, as well as helps to prepare math graduate students to act as teaching assistants.
He also runs the teaching seminar for the math department, hosting weekly speakers who talk on various topics connected to undergraduate education.
He’s a member of a group which has received a National Science Foundation S-STEM grant that looks to improve the success of change of campus students in science fields. He’s responsible for expanding effective calculus curriculum materials and teaching methodology to commonwealth campuses.
Bortiatynski said coaching students to become self-directed learners is the central focus of her teaching. She knows STEM courses can be challenging, so she creates an environment that encourages curiosity, creativity and confidence-building.
“I feel it’s extremely important to help students practice effective learning strategies to become self-directed learners," Bortiatynski said. “Without these skills, students find it difficult to meet the challenges that lie ahead and never learn how to apply what they have learned to real-world problems. My role as a learning coach is to work with my team as a learning community. We learn together through the practice of effective strategies, motivating each other and continuous feedback.”
She wants her students to ask the “how” and “why” questions related to science, which she said helps students make connections between key concepts.
Students praised Bortiatynski’s teaching methods and her individualized approach to the learning process. One even cited the way she begins each class inviting students to share their “triumphs and tragedies” as an inviting approach to learning.
“Bortiatynski’s teaching style gives insight about the course material while creating a welcoming environment in which our class can discuss that material,” a student said. “Her class teaches the skills necessary to not only be a better science student but a better person in the scientific community.”
Bortiatynski is director of the Center for Excellence in Science Education at Penn State. The center’s mission is to provide faculty and students with a collaborative educational network that promotes excellence in science teaching and learning. That’s accomplished through a variety of instructional development activities for faculty and students interested in science teaching.
Bortiatynski co-developed a Learning Assistant Program that has trained more than 750 undergraduates as learning facilitators and trained more than two dozen of the college’s faculty members. The program encompasses a group of faculty and motivated students who all have the common goal of enhancing the learning experience in science and math classes. Bortiatynski is also a member of the Undergraduate Education Advisory Committee in ECoS.