UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Fred Fonseca, associate professor in the College of Information Sciences and Technology; Marinda Harrell-Levy, associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Brandywine and Jessica Schocker, associate professor in social studies education and women's studies at Penn State Berks, have received the Alumni/Student Award for Excellence in Teaching and have been named 2022 Penn State Teaching Fellows.
The Penn State Alumni Association, in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate governing bodies, established the award in 1988. It honors distinguished teaching and provides encouragement and incentive for excellence in teaching. Recipients are expected to share their talents and expertise with others throughout the University system during the year following the award presentation.
Fonseca says he uses programming problems to teach his students what they don’t know. When they try to solve the problem, he said, they’ll soon realize they need to learn something.
“Each problem is designed based on past materials but bringing something new,” he said. “I see the problems as puzzles that need to be solved. The programming language is a toolbox with everything they need to solve the problem. Each problem then should raise the need for more and different tools that they can find and use in the programming language toolbox.”
To begin, Fonseca shows students the result of a difficult problem. Then he breaks down the approach, how each step will lead them closer to the solution. That way they begin to see the solutions as something less daunting.
“Instead of working on a problem for weeks without seeing any concrete solution, the incremental approach gives students a sense of achievement that empowers them to keep working on learning more techniques,” Fonseca said.
Fonseca also engages students with active discussion around the reading portion of his classes. He challenges himself to have informed discussion on the text. He has students collectively read and comment on their understanding of the text. This prompts his response and further responses from others in the class. The key, he says, is to use student comments as a tool to encourage collective reading of the text.
“When students answer their given question, they also should use their comments and quotes from the text. The result is a discussion based on the readings and on their own take on the readings,” Fonseca said.
As an educator of emerging technologies, students said, Fonseca is always focused on the implications of developing these emerging technologies. He wants his students to consider the impact on the users and society at large.
One student said Fonseca’s teaching makes him think differently about how algorithms and social media have transformed the definition of friendship.
“Dr. Fonseca helped me believe that our algorithmic world doesn’t have to stay the way it is,” the former student said. “He ensures that students not only pigeonhole themselves to the technical aspects of technology, but to create a broader, more interconnected understanding of technology’s place in our world today.”
Harrell-Levy sees her class as an experience. It’s responsive, dynamic and process-based learning, she says, that helps her establish a personal and authentic understanding of her desired learning outcomes. These outcomes aren’t driven by her work or theirs, rather a collective result between the two.
“I speak early and often to my students about how the journey we are on leads to them being competent, empathic, and impactful leaders in their respective fields,” Harrell-Levy said. “They learn about some of the different ways of teaching and learning and how my lens leads both me and my students out into the community where I ask them to apply their knowledge actively, reshaping their world views. I guide my students to engage critically with everything they learn so that when they graduate and go into their chosen professions, they will do so without harming the people and communities they seek to help.”
Many of Harrell-Levy’s students are there simply to fulfill an academic requirement but that doesn’t stop her and her students from coming to the conclusion that the learning process can make the world a better place.
“Because many of my students begin as exploratory students but end up choosing careers in social work and counseling, my pedagogical approach aims to promote transfer from education to practice,” Harrell-Levy said.
She relies less on one-way presentations and more on dynamic, student-centered lectures, activities and dialog.
“Students in all my classes are encouraged to explore their own personal values, beliefs, and behaviors, and contextualize them with related research, giving them the opportunity to display cultural competence,” she said. “For instance, we do not just consider the symptomatology of a disease or the demographic characteristics of a community. We move beyond that to consider such topics through a wider view of the people and communities that are affected and how our own racialized, gendered, and classed representations of people and communities contribute to how we experience the topics.”
Students said Harrell-Levy’s commitment to improving her community – she’s involved in improving inner-city schools – make her an educator who is immersed in her area of expertise and how education can improve quality of life.
“Dr. Harrell-Levy is one of those rare individuals who practices what she preaches,” a former student said. “We watched as she conducted a thorough research project that showed us how trauma may look in real life. She then went into Chester County schools to educate the teachers on trauma. Her work is leading to big changes in inner-city schools while having an impact on her students.”
Schocker said great educators do more than teach their students, they allow them to become themselves. That’s something she’s learned in nearly 20 years of teaching. She strives to create a classroom where students don’t just pursue an education and the course material, but their own humanity.
“Creating a classroom environment where students are willing to work hard and take risks requires teaching classroom citizenship skills,” Schocker said. “I define classroom citizenship explicitly for my students as the intersection of preparedness, contribution, and listening. The combination differs based on student personality and experience. I encourage students to self-evaluate and reflect on their classroom citizenship over the course of the semester.”
As a white woman who often teaches about the power and place of race in America, Schocker said she once had to be that vulnerable learner. That shaped her as an educator and taught her that her role is to create a space where students – especially those of color – can trust her.
Schocker said students aren’t most motivated to work hard by earning a good grade. To achieve that motivation, she said, they need to be encouraged to be authentic with their peers.
Schocker said her class content and methods give students the language and tools to productively discuss even the most sensitive sociopolitical events, such as the murder of George Floyd and subsequent trial of Derek Chauvin. Her students discussed these events both intellectually and emotionally, making genuine connections with their peers.
The COVID-19 pandemic often made emotional discussions difficult in virtual settings, but Schocker said she found her students eager to express themselves despite these trying times. She said that the connection between what students learn in the classroom as it applies to real-life scenarios ignited students to share their thoughts among their peers. She said the power of teaching can lead to an environment where knowledge can develop among members of a collective.
“The world we live in is loud, intoxicating, beautiful, tragic, busy, and puzzling,” Schocker said. “I work hard to make my classroom a place where students take respite in learning, laugh a little, read and write a lot, develop and share their humanity, and become empowered by their vulnerability.”
Schocker’s students praised her ability as an educator but also her commitment to creating an environment where they could grow. They said her encouragement helped them excel.
“Dr. Schocker, outside of being an outstanding intellect and scholar, is a role model,” a former student said. “She presents herself with energy that demands respect but also makes the classroom environment very open and accepting. She truly takes in all her students as her own. She has inspired me in so many ways and has not only believed in me but encouraged me to believe in myself, which is, in my opinion, one of the most important life lessons one can learn.”