Joseph Houck, associate teaching professor of chemistry and assistant head for undergraduate curriculum in the Department of Chemistry at Penn State, is one of three to be honored with a 2022 C.I. Noll Award for Excellence in Teaching by the Eberly College of Science. Instituted in 1972 and named in honor of Clarence I. Noll, dean of the college from 1965 to 1971, the award is the highest honor for undergraduate teaching in the college. Students, faculty members, and alumni nominate outstanding faculty members who best exemplify the key characteristics of a Penn State educator, and a committee selects the award winners from the group of nominees.
Houck is an enthusiastic instructor who aims to form connections with students, provide opportunities for students to actively participate and learn from each other, and to connect material to the real world. He makes a concerted effort to learn the names of his students, even in large classes with more than 400 students, and encourages participation through a system he calls “names from a hat.” Students can choose to put their name in a hat to be called on to share their answers after working on an in-class problem to receive extra credit. These practices make for a “welcoming and less intimidating learning environment,” according to a nominator.
“The enthusiasm and conscientiousness he brings to class each day are the aspects of his teaching I find most inspiring,” said a faculty member quoted in a nomination letter. “The excited tone he brings clearly draws student interest, and perhaps more impressively, is reflected by a strong rate of volunteered responses that I would not expect out of a 300+ person class.”
Houck encourages students to learn from each other, including by working together on in-class worksheets. He also appeals to student interests by highlighting real-world applications to the course topics, including through case studies that allow students to apply skills they have learned to biologically relevant problems.
“These case studies are designed to allow students to explore new topics that stem from the material learned in class and highlight how important organic chemistry is,” said one student nominator. “I believe this is an innovative component of the course; as a student, I really enjoyed this project-based approach to learning and knowledge.”
Houck is also committed to improving the courses that he teaches and frequently adapts the curriculum with feedback from students, learning assistants, and teaching assistants. He redesigned CHEM 210 to deliver material through a series of in-class worksheets, which one nominator said, “fosters active learning, with students solving problems as they encounter new material in class.” He recently received a teaching innovation award from the Eberly College of Science to add biological case studies to CHEM 210. He is also working to improve CHEM 111, an online general chemistry course, for which students purchase a kit with materials to complete lab experiments at home.
“Some students, specifically international students, run into some troubles involving high shipping costs, and he is interested in replacing this laboratory kit with more affordable and accessible experiments,” said a nominator. “I admire how he cares so much about the experience of the students in his online courses.”
After researching styles of grading, Houck notably shifted grading to a regime called “specifications grading” for CHEM 210B, which has 470 students. This style of grading—which has not yet been implemented in a class of this size—focuses on providing more targeted feedback and allows students to try again on weekly quizzes. Student responses to this change have been positive, with students mentioning lower stress and increased confidence and motivation.
Outside of the classroom, Houck served as faculty advisor to the Nittany Chemical Society and was an instructor for the Millennium Scholars Summer Bridge Program. He currently mentors the U.S. National Chemistry Olympiad Team (USNCO), where he works with some of the top high school students from across the country.
Houck was previously recognized with a Teaching Innovation Award from the Eberly College of Science in 2022 and the Priestley Teaching Prize from the Penn State Department of Chemistry in 2021.
Houck joined Penn State as an assistant teaching professor in 2016 and was promoted to associate teaching professor in 2019. Prior to joining Penn state, Houck was a lecturer at the University of Maryland from 2013 to 2016. He received a doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of Virginia in 2013 and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a secondary emphasis on education from Juniata College in 2008.