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Donald J. Orth honored by the American Fisheries Society

October 28, 2016

Man holds a catfish caught for research study
Donald J. Orth holds a 40-kilogram blue catfish that was captured for research study and then released back into the Rappahannock River.

Donald J. Orth, the Thomas H. Jones Professor in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been named a Fellow of the American Fisheries Society and received the society’s Excellence in Fisheries Education Award.

The American Fisheries Society Fellows Program seeks to honor society members who have made outstanding contributions to the society through efforts in leadership, research, teaching and mentoring, resource management, and public outreach. The Excellence in Fisheries Education Award is presented to members who have demonstrated excellence in organized teaching and advising in some aspect of fisheries education.

Orth first took an interest in fisheries science in 1967 when a large number of alewives began washing up on the shores of Lake Michigan near his hometown of Chicago. Curious about how both human involvement and factors hidden deep under the water’s surface might be contributing to the epidemic, Orth decided to pursue a degree in fisheries.

While teaching was not his initial goal, as Orth continued in his education, he came to recognize the importance of good teachers in helping to shape a student’s experience and future opportunities.

“My role as a teacher is to help students find meaning in their work,” he said.

This realization has shaped his approach to teaching ever since. According to Orth, a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, the most meaningful learning opportunities happen when an instructor puts faith in his or her students.

“You’ve got to trust that the students are doing their best,” he said.

His approach to education also emphasizes the importance of respecting his students and giving them “choice, challenge, and control over their own learning.”

Orth said understanding a student’s individual learning style and goals is vital to providing a meaningful classroom experience.

“You’ve got to meet the students where they’re at and treat each one as an individual no matter how large the class is,” he said.

One of the ways Orth demonstrates respect to his students is by working hard to ensure that the assignments he gives all have a purpose.

“My assignments are all intentional, authentic activities. They are things that I actually think are important and will help the students learn,” he said.

In addition to his work in the classroom, Orth has also contributed to educational endeavors within the American Fisheries Society. As an active member for 40 years, Orth has served the society in many capacities, including serving on the Education Subcommittee for the Board of Professional Certification, as chair of the Program Committee, as chair of the Excellence in Fisheries Education Award Committee, and as president of the Education Section.

“It’s a great organization,” he said. “They’re always adapting and providing new services for members.”

Of the Excellence in Fisheries Education Award, Orth said, “It was rather humbling to think about all the students I’ve taught over the years and to consider that their success started with something that I did. It’s surprising and somewhat emotional. None of this is due to any one single contribution, but rather the culmination of a career.”

Orth, who received his bachelor’s from Eastern Illinois University and his master’s and doctorate from Oklahoma State University, has been a faculty member at Virginia Tech since 1980 and has received a number of university teaching awards.

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