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Showalter receives Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching

26 March 2024
Scott Showlater

Scott Showalter, professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science is one of two Penn State faculty members to receive the 2024 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.

Showalter said his goal as an educator is to teach about the impact science has on global society and the quality of life. He knows his students may seek careers elsewhere and just want a broad understanding of the topics, or they may seek advanced degrees in his field. In either, there’s some common ground.

“It is important to be humble and recognize that many of the students in a general chemistry classroom do not want to become practicing chemists,” Showalter said. “However, they do want to understand the value of the course they are taking for their major and chosen profession. Equally, for those who do desire careers in science, health or engineering it is essential to set their foundation for their long-term study.”

His teaching centers around three core principles.

First, he strives to create a learning community by addressing students’ needs, which may be far outside the bounds of the course curriculum. He said creating a learning community starts with creating an engaged student who sees the value of what they are learning and how it relates to both being an informed citizen and their career objectives.

Knowing his students by name and offering ample office hours so he can better get to know them and their grasp of the subject matter is also important. Office hours are important, he said, because it’s a chance to demonstrate the value of study groups and peer collaboration. It’s also a chance for him to be a positive role model for a diverse group of students.

“At the undergraduate level, supportive, high-quality role model relationships can benefit both male and female students as they make academic and career decisions," Showalter said. “Such relationships are a predictive factor in steering women and students from underrepresented groups toward achievement in science and mathematics. In a community that respects the needs of all students, respect for diversity flows naturally and learning outcomes for all included participants will be maximized.”

Second, Showalter leads with the concepts and the perception of value follows. Without a basic understanding of chemistry, he said, it’s hard to see the value of the field. But, once students begin to learn the core concepts they see how it leads to problem solving.

“Connecting the problems back to the concepts doesn’t generally happen,” Showalter said. “In contrast, the courses I design place the concepts forward, only allowing calculations to enter later when they can be decisive between conflicting hypotheses, or when they point logically toward a deeper model.”

Lastly, Showalter said learning is a process that students must achieve for themselves. He said the classroom is just one of many opportunities for them to learn. His role there is to generate action while addressing bottlenecks in learning core concepts.

“In general chemistry, this is rigorously achieved by using chemical demonstrations to challenge misconceptions in prior knowledge, or to motivate the development of a new theory,” he said.

Nominators said Showalter humanizes science by showcasing the deep personal experiences of the experts who developed concepts they’re learning in the classroom. They said he emphasized their trials before triumphs, building relatable subjects for the students.

“By introducing us to these faces and stories of past scientists, he fostered a sense of belonging within the scientific community,” a former student said. “By humanizing the field of chemistry, we could begin to envision ourselves as future contributors. His teaching approach inspired us to aspire to have our own faces projected on the board one day, signifying our own contributions to the scientific community and the advancement of knowledge.”