Denise Woodward, teaching professor of biology 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.
Woodward strives to make course content engaging, to challenge students to think critically, and to make connections between course material and the world we live in. She creates a positive, engaged, and student-centric classroom experience, even in large lectures with more than 500 students. Nominators mentioned her commitment to fostering an environment of active learning, both in lectures with polls and questions and in the lab through engaging hands-on activities and relatable, open-ended research experiments where students generate unique data. They also mentioned Woodward’s ongoing desire to incorporate feedback and improve course material from year to year.
“It is clear to me that Denise fosters an environment of discovery and growth, values she has built into her courses,” said a nominator. “The effort she puts into crafting a meaningful experience for her students is more than evident in her course design, her day-to-day lessons, and the respect she garners from her students and peers alike,”
According to nominators, Woodward treats all students with respect and is considerate of their unique backgrounds and perspectives. One said, “she consistently goes above and beyond and has immense compassion and understanding to ensure that students do not fall behind in her courses.” Woodward also ties in the life sciences to issues of ethics and social injustices. For example, one case study in her ecotoxicology course explores how genetically modified insects can be used to combat the spread of insect-borne diseases, like malaria. Additionally, she worked with an undergraduate TA to write a textbook for her human genetics course to significantly decrease the cost of course materials to aid students in financial need.
Woodward also is an excellent mentor to teaching assistants, learning assistants, and peers. As the course coordinator for Biology 110, she directs three other instructors and about 50 graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants that teach lab sections, and also coordinates a large group of learning assistants. Teaching assistants are encouraged to design labs and assignments and are valued members of the teaching team. Multiple nominators mentioned that Woodward’s guidance while a teaching assistant is a major reason for their desire to pursue careers in academia. One explained, “I want to have the same impact on my future students that she had on me.”
Woodward also helped develop and teaches a graduate-level pedagogy course in biology.
“Her ability to engage the students in meaningful discussion and solicit their feelings about moving from being a student to becoming a teacher is singular,” said one nominator. “Denise is invested in excellence in science education and is dedicated to helping these students become the best teachers that they can be.”
Woodward was named an Engagement Fellow by the Student Engagement Network in 2022, for which she received a grant to develop a new course that combines science, art, and educational principles to plant gardens of native plants and provide additional educational materials for the community. Woodward has previously been recognized by being named a Center for Excellence in Science Education Evidence-Based Teaching Institute Fellow in 2018, a Rock Ethics Institute Summer Institute Fellow in 2015, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute/National Academy of Sciences Summer Institute Fellow in 2010.
Prior to joining Penn State in 2001, Woodward served as an instructor at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She received a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction and a master’s degree in zoology from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in 2013 and 1998, respectively, and a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1990.