Julia Kregenow, associate teaching professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is one of six faculty members selected to receive the 2021 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.
Kregenow knows that many of her students are undergraduate nonscience majors fulfilling a general education requirement, so she tailors those courses so that students can get the most out of the experience while taking home lifelong skills about science that can be applied to any career.
To accomplish this, she has three main objectives.
She wants to demystify math and science. If students leave her course with a positive attitude about the subjects, they won’t fear, mistrust or shy away from those topics when they encounter them in real life.
She favors quantitative reasoning over arithmetic. She said this will most likely be the last time many of her students are formally exposed to quantitative science. So she wants to help them to build a foundation of science literacy, and develop an appreciation for (or at least a comfort level with) the topic.
“I want my students to become more informed consumers of technical information because they will see more and more of it throughout their lifetimes,” Kregenow said.
Lastly, she wants them to understand the scientific process. If her students leave knowing that science involves gathering evidence, making predictions and systematically testing those predictions, they’ll build and maintain scientific literacy. And they’ll use these lifelong skills to spot the difference between pseudoscience and actual science.
Kregenow said it’s important to understand that “our students aren’t us.” Most of them won’t be seeking doctorates in STEM fields, she said, therefore their motivation, priorities and interests aren’t the same as hers. Knowing this, she said, tells her that her students won’t necessarily respond to the same motivators and teaching tools as she did in college.
She also knows that students’ minds aren’t blank slates.
“My students have a lifetime of experiences and preconceived notions — indeed sometimes misconceptions — about how the world works,” Kregenow said. “Learning cannot be just a one-way transfer of information: I must elicit and lead them to consciously address their prior ideas, so that they can incorporate new knowledge onto that already crowded mental canvas.”
Kregenow wants to challenge her students — too little and the class becomes boring — but too much and students become overwhelmed, ultimately learning less in the process. Kregenow said if she races through 20 topics in a semester and students retain just three, she knows she’s failed. But if she covers 10 and students retain eight at the deep level, she knows she’s succeeded.
Students praised Kregenow’s passion for astronomy and for relying on her energy and excitement to ignite their passion for learning.
“Kregenow’s passion for astronomy radiates every day during class. She relates course material to real world situations, utilizes visuals and animations to help her students understand topics more clearly and starts out each class period with a playlist of lesson-themed songs to welcome students,” a student said. “She cares about the well-being of every student, and even takes extra time to address how to get the most out of our college experience by having the right mindset and utilizing the right learning strategies. She is relatable, funny and understanding of her students’ needs and struggles. She goes above and beyond to help students excel in and out of the classroom. She makes me excited to come to class.”