Paff, Showalter receive Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Lolita Paff, associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks, and Scott Showalter, professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Eberly College of Science, are the recipients of the 2024 Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching.

The award recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty who have been employed full time for at least five years with undergraduate teaching as a major portion of their duties. Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, served as president of Penn State from 1950 to 1956.

Lolita Paff

Paff said educating her students comes only after she’s able to connect with them. Many of her students are first-generation students so her initial goal is to make herself relatable and approachable. That promotes a collaborative learning experience.

“It’s important for students to realize — and healthy for teachers to remember — that today’s expert was yesterday’s novice,” Paff said. “I often share my first-gen experiences as I seek to build community by learning students’ names, integrating opportunities for them to get to know each other, facilitating collaboration in- and out-of-class, reaching out when a student is absent and encouraging office visits. These behaviors demonstrate caring because many students won’t care what you know, or want to learn it, until they know you care.”

Paff said she wants to share her enthusiasm for the subject matter and get students excited about the material. Topics such as accounting or microeconomics may seem foreign, so she said it’s her job to apply the field in a relatable way. She spurs interest through lessons based on the cookie market or greeting cards. She also finds out what students are interested in and adds those selected topics to her lesson plans. She also works with the campus’ Anti-racism Across the Curriculum (AAC) group to incorporate race and antiracism content so that diverse voices and experiences are featured.

“When we are interested, we pay closer attention, make more connections and work harder,” Paff said. “My goal is for all students to connect the content to their lived experiences.”

Her students are often learning how to be independent learners. Giving them the tools they’ll need to advance broadly in college is also part of her goals. Many of her students are first- or second-year students, so she begins with detailed learning practices. Later, she gives students more freedom as they shift to student-created learning plans, self assessments and peer feedback. In her advanced courses, she helps students understand their best way to learn.

Because learning also comes with its challenges, Paff said she balances her high expectations with kindness. She lets students revise submitted assignments so they can learn from their mistakes.

“Allowing revised submission supports learning, emphasizing process over product,” Paff said. “These practices promote intrinsic motivation and tenacity, encouraging students to safely take risks in their learning. In this environment, mistakes aren’t failures; they are an integral part of growth and mastery.”

Nominators said Paff takes a personalized approach to education, engaging them in the topics while making them feel part of the learning process.

“The most unique part of Dr. Paff’s teaching was how she allowed each student to personalize their learning throughout the class. Each student was able to choose a topic of personal interest to research through the lens of microeconomic concepts throughout the semester,” a former student said. “Dr. Paff worked with me throughout the semester to help bring my research to life and understand my data. I think a sign of great teaching is when a student leaves the classroom changed: more inspired, more informed and more competent. What I learned in Dr. Paff’s class was greatly informative and impactful to me then and now, inside, and outside of the classroom.

Scott Showalter

Showalter said his goal as an educator is to teach about the impact science has on global society and the quality of life. He knows his students may seek careers elsewhere and just want a broad understanding of the topics, or they may seek advanced degrees in his field. In either, there’s some common ground.

“It is important to be humble and recognize that many of the students in a general chemistry classroom do not want to become practicing chemists,” Showalter said. “However, they do want to understand the value of the course they are taking for their major and chosen profession. Equally, for those who do desire careers in science, health or engineering it is essential to set their foundation for their long-term study.”

His teaching centers around three core principles.

First, he strives to create a learning community by addressing students’ needs, which may be far outside the bounds of the course curriculum. He said creating a learning community starts with creating an engaged student who sees the value of what they are learning and how it relates to both being an informed citizen and their career objectives.

Knowing his students by name and offering ample office hours so he can better get to know them and their grasp of the subject matter is also important. Office hours are important, he said, because it’s a chance to demonstrate the value of study groups and peer collaboration. It’s also a chance for him to be a positive role model for a diverse group of students.

“At the undergraduate level, supportive, high-quality role model relationships can benefit both male and female students as they make academic and career decisions," Showalter said. “Such relationships are a predictive factor in steering women and students from underrepresented groups toward achievement in science and mathematics. In a community that respects the needs of all students, respect for diversity flows naturally and learning outcomes for all included participants will be maximized.”

Second, Showalter leads with the concepts and the perception of value follows. Without a basic understanding of chemistry, he said, it’s hard to see the value of the field. But, once students begin to learn the core concepts they see how it leads to problem solving.

“Connecting the problems back to the concepts doesn’t generally happen,” Showalter said. “In contrast, the courses I design place the concepts forward, only allowing calculations to enter later when they can be decisive between conflicting hypotheses, or when they point logically toward a deeper model.”

Lastly, Showalter said learning is a process that students must achieve for themselves. He said the classroom is just one of many opportunities for them to learn. His role there is to generate action while addressing bottlenecks in learning core concepts.

“In general chemistry, this is rigorously achieved by using chemical demonstrations to challenge misconceptions in prior knowledge, or to motivate the development of a new theory,” he said.

Nominators said Showalter humanizes science by showcasing the deep personal experiences of the experts who developed concepts they’re learning in the classroom. They said he emphasized their trials before triumphs, building relatable subjects for the students.

“By introducing us to these faces and stories of past scientists, he fostered a sense of belonging within the scientific community,” a former student said. “By humanizing the field of chemistry, we could begin to envision ourselves as future contributors. His teaching approach inspired us to aspire to have our own faces projected on the board one day, signifying our own contributions to the scientific community and the advancement of knowledge.”