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Two new associate deans for undergraduate education

24 October 2019

The Eberly College of Science has appointed two new associate deans to continue its efforts to improve undergraduate education in the college. Effective July 1, 2019, Mary Beth Williams, professor of chemistry and formerly senior associate dean of undergraduate education, transitioned to the role of senior associate dean of instruction and curricula. Chris Palma, teaching professor and associate head for undergraduate programs in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, took on the new position of associate dean for undergraduate students.

“The creation of these two key positions in the college will enable us to achieve our goal of enhancing the undergraduate experience,” said Douglas Cavener, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “I am excited that Mary Beth will continue to share her dedication and experience to enhance undergraduate education in the college and also that Chris will be joining us in this new role, with his passion for teaching and outreach. Together, I am confident they will help elevate the quality of educational experiences for students and faculty in the college.”

Mary Beth Williams

As senior associate dean of instruction and curricula, Williams is responsible for initiatives to ensure that teaching and learning meets the college’s mission to educate future generations of scientists. Williams focuses on adopting evidence-based teaching methods like active learning and inquiry-based instruction. She oversees curricular development and innovation in collaboration with the Center for Science Excellence in Education, the Office of Digital Learning, the college’s departments, and the University. She also provides leadership in the planning, design, curricular development, implementation, and evaluation of undergraduate and graduate teaching and learning initiatives. Additionally, she collaborates with the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses to promote faculty collaboration and encourage curricular development and innovation across the Penn State campuses.

In addition to running an active research program, Williams has taught thousands of students in the introductory chemistry course sequence and has served as the chemistry department’s graduate admissions and recruiting chair. She currently directs the Chemistry Undergraduate Summer Research Program and is the principal investigator for the college’s Science Dean’s Scholars Program and the University’s Millennium Scholars Program. She led Penn State’s General Education Task Force from 2013 to 2015, which was integral in launching the college’s Evidence-Based Teaching Academy in 2018. Williams also served as the acting associate dean for administration and planning from 2009 to 2010.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State in 2001, Williams was a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University. She earned a doctoral degree at the University of North Carolina in 1999 and a bachelor’s degree from St. John Fisher College in 1994.

Chris Palma

As associate dean for undergraduate students, Palma promotes excellence and supports the well-being of undergraduate students in the college. He oversees undergraduate programs, including the academic advising, science engagement, and recruiting and admissions offices. He coordinates admissions and recruitment activities, including New Student Orientation and Welcome Day events, and oversees interdepartmental degree programs, commencement, academic advising awards, and administering undergraduate policies and procedures. He also serves on the Advisory Committee on Undergraduate Education.

Palma has developed and taught several courses in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and is committed to pedagogy and science outreach. He played a crucial role in developing the Planetary Science and Astronomy major in 2013, partly aimed at students who want to pursue K–12 science education. He has taught annual summer workshops for K–12 science teachers since 2013 and was involved in the development of a new workshop curriculum for K–12 science teachers. 

He was also part of a team that was awarded and successfully completed a seven-year, $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve student learning in Pennsylvania middle schools. He manages and trains volunteers for the Davey Lab Planetarium, which regularly hosts public presentations, and helps organize AstroFest, an annual outreach event in State College.

Palma joined the Penn State faculty as a postdoctoral fellow in 2001 and soon after became one of the first employees of the Eberly College of Science’s Office of Science Outreach. Prior to that, he taught astronomy at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He earned a master’s and a doctoral degree in astronomy at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and bachelor’s degrees in astronomy and astrophysics and in physics in 1994 at Penn State.