Barbara Bekken, assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences, and John Simonetti, associate professor in the Department of Physics, have been awarded the 2009 Certificate of Teaching Excellence in the College of Science. The award is bestowed annually to faculty members who demonstrate outstanding teaching skills and methods, and dedication to learning.

Bekken came to Virginia Tech in 1992 and almost immediately began developing new approaches to course design and teaching. Her teaching methods strongly reflect her belief that scientists can no longer work in isolation but rather, must include other disciplinary ways of knowing. To put this philosophy into practice, Bekken led an interdisciplinary term in developing a unique four-semester course in earth sustainability as part of the curriculum for liberal education. As director of this course, Bekken has demonstrated her leadership skills by bringing together a team of instructors from around the university. The popularity of the course among students is indicated by course evaluations and student comments.

As noted by one of her former students, “The course shaped me unlike any other educational experience and continues to influence my daily lifestyle.”

Another student commented, “Dr. Bekken is a rare professor who transcends the conventional cycle of teach, test, repeat. As one of her students I could not help but care about what she was teaching.”

Bekken has received exceptionally high ratings from students in each of the courses she teaches.

“Barbara has a demeanor and classroom presence that makes the students feel at ease while at the same time keeps them actively engaged in the learning process,” said Robert Bodnar, University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences. “I am proud to call Barbara a colleague. She is clearly someone who is making a difference.”

Bekken earned her master’s degree from the University of Washington and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. She was recently named a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and has received numerous other awards and honors.

Simonetti came to Virginia Tech in 1989 as an assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

“John’s contributions to our teaching and learning mission, sustained over two decades, are of impeccable quality and reach far beyond the classroom,” said Beate Schmittmann, physics department chair. “In addition, John has played an absolutely critical role in establishing and directing our astronomy program.”

A former student writes, “Dr. Simonetti’s ability to teach abstract concepts to students in a logical manner becomes a foundation for more complicated or creative problem-solving that is required of many science and engineering careers.”

Simonetti’s contributions to the teaching and learning mission of the college include: development of an undergraduate astronomy minor program and a course in observational astrophysics; installation, upgrade, and maintenance of the university’s Martin Observatory, and creation of Sky Image Processor, a web-based Java astronomical image processing program now used by dozens of high schools, universities, and professional observatories.

Last fall, students gave Simonetti’s courses high marks and praised his teaching style and course preparation.

“Dr. Simonetti’s lectures were magnificently organized,” one former student said. “We began each class with a well-defined question like ‘What keeps stars from caving in?’”

“Dr. Simonetti has achieved unparalleled balance in helping us grow academically and personally,” another student noted. “He truly values our abilities and invests his time generously in helping us achieve our goals.”

Simonetti earned his master’s degree and his Ph.D. from Cornell University. In addition to his teaching, research and astronomy-related community outreach, he has served as associate department chair in physics since 2005.

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