Nate Brown, professor of mathematics in the Eberly College of Science is one of two faculty members at Penn State to receive the 2022 Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching.
The award recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty who have been employed full time for at least five years with undergraduate teaching as a major portion of their duties. Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, served as president of Penn State from 1950 to 1956.
When he first began teaching, Brown said, he relied on dated approaches where students learned solely from his instruction. But for the past decade he’s been on a journey of discovery, reflection and self improvement. Taking a student-centered approach, he’s focused on how students learn.
It’s radically transformed his classroom. Students spent half their time working in groups where students conquer bite-sized chunks of larger concepts and techniques.
“These forms of active- and inquiry-based learning are known to improve student learning,” Brown said. “They also facilitate student collaboration, which is particularly important for the success of marginalized students.”
He said it allows students to sharpen skills that are applicable beyond mathematics while fostering a sense of community among students. That’s a pillar of Penn State’s Millennium Scholars Program, which was modeled after the Meyerhoff Program, and is known to increase long-term retention among underrepresented students in STEM fields.
Nominators said Brown is dedicated to students achieving their full potential and to dismantling institutional barriers that hinder students from underrepresented groups. They said he refuses to believe there are students who inherently excel at math. Under the right instruction, he believes all students can succeed. That’s evident in the time he spends during the summer supporting students in Penn State’s Millennium Scholars Program, which is dedicated to improving diversity in STEM fields by putting underrepresented students on a path to a Ph.D.
In addition to working to create a more inclusive and equitable learning environment in his own classroom, he reaches out to other members of his department to discuss impediments to student success, such as stereotype threat.
Nominators said Brown is himself a lifelong learner who is always looking for ways to improve.
“I believe that Nate stands out above and beyond all other good teachers because he is consistently and actively striving to learn how to teach today’s students,” a nominator said. “He reads research articles on education and educational psychology and incorporates these evidence-based findings into his instructional plan. He listens to students. As a result, he can confront his own biases and change his methods based on new information.”
Students praised Brown’s ability to treat them as individuals, knowing the tools each of them need to succeed in mathematics. They said he’s an empathetic educator who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a student. They said he gives them the motivation they need to succeed and considers their failures his own.
“In Nate’s class, it doesn’t matter how large the gap is between where your past experiences with mathematics have left you and where you would like to be,” a former student said. “He has made it clear he will eagerly go out of his way to breach the divide.”