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Deans Letter - Winter 2020

9 April 2020
Dean Douglas Cavener

When I began my tenure as dean of our college in 2015, I secured a major commitment to improve the physics department’s research and teaching facilities to address the deteriorating state of Osmond Laboratory. I am happy to announce that the long-awaited launch of a new physics building and the renovation of Osmond Laboratory was approved by the Board of Trustees. Over the next year, we will be working with architects and University facility planners to maximize design functionality while staying within our budget. Construction should begin in 2021, with projected completion in 2023/2024. While our faculty and students won’t be involved in the brick-and- mortar construction, they continue to carry on the strong tradition of designing and building world-class scientific instruments, pioneered by Erwin Mueller’s field-ion microscope in 1955, which provided the first visualization of an atom, Larry Ramsey’s unique and cost-saving design of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), and the Habitable Zone Planet Finder (HPF) and NEID spectrographs, built by Suvrath Mahadevan’s team and recently installed on the HET at MacDonald Observatory in Texas and the WIYN Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, respectively.

In sadder news, this past fall John Badding, professor of chemistry and one of our most innovative scientists, unexpectedly passed away. John’s groundbreaking work on nanothreads was highlighted in the summer 2019 issue of the Science Journal. As a college, we will miss his innovations. As colleagues, we will miss his friendship.

Our commitment to elevate teaching and to integrate teaching and research as one enterprise to enhance learning, discovery, and problem-solving has made considerable strides in the past five years. We have integrated active-learning strategies into most of our foundational undergraduate courses. To assist faculty in learning these newer methods of teaching, we have established the Evidence-Based Teaching Academy— an intense week-long workshop offered each year. Nearly 100 of our faculty have completed the workshop, and our goal is that all of our faculty will have done so over the next few years. Anecdotal reports from students suggest that these efforts have improved teaching. For example, during a dinner I attended last year, I overheard a conversation among a group of biology and premed majors praising their calculus courses and instructors. During any other era at Penn State— or, for that matter, at any other university—hearing life science majors rave about calculus would have been unimaginable. But knowing that our math department has transformed how calculus is taught, I wasn’t surprised.

I will be stepping down as dean of the college later this year and will return to the biology department as a regular faculty member. After 20 years of administrative service, first as biology department head and then as dean, I look forward to fully engaging with Penn State students to learn, discover, and solve problems. I have immensely enjoyed my work with the faculty, staff, University administration, and alumni and friends of the college in my role as dean of the best college of science in the nation, and I look forward to working with all of you in a different capacity as a faculty member of the Department of Biology.

Kind regards,

Douglas R. Cavener
Verne M. Willaman Dean