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Twenty honored for excellence in teaching, advising

4/25/2011 | Mare Payne, News Bureau | 217-333-0567;

[ Email | Share ] CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Eleven faculty members, four academic professionals and five graduate teaching assistants at the UI were honored April 26 for excellence in teaching and advising. The honors were presented during a reception at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center.

Faculty members honored with the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching:

Honored with the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Catherine Gray
Catherine E. Gray

A.J. Hildebrand
A.J. Hildebrand

Cynthia Johnson
Cynthia J. Johnson

Robert PahreRobert Pahre

Photos by L. Brian Stauffer

Catharine E. Gray, English, understands well the challenges of teaching literature of the distant past to today’s undergraduate students. A colleague describes this literature as “potentially arcane” and “difficult” for students to comprehend and interpret. Despite these challenges, Gray consistently receives high ratings for her teaching, in part because she so expertly reduces students’ anxiety about approaching the texts she assigns. She encourages creativity among her students by sponsoring classroom activities that emphasize, in her words, “the rich strangeness of the past.”

A.J. Hildebrand, mathematics, was praised for his success in the classroom by a colleague who said this success can be attributed to his “knowledge and commitment to mathematics, his preparation and attention to detail, his friendly but demanding attitude, and his generosity in time and effort mentoring students.” Hildebrand also has led an NSF-funded research program for undergraduates and has served for more than two decades as head coach for Illinois in the Putnam Examination, known as the world’s toughest math test.

Cynthia J. Johnson, speech and hearing science, has appeared on the List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent 68 times in her 29 years at Illinois. Her enthusiasm for teaching is apparent both inside and outside of the classroom. She enjoys explaining difficult concepts and helping students make sense of them. She also mentors and advises undergraduates in learning and laboratory experiences. Johnson provides opportunities for students to take part in laboratory research through independent studies and has directed six to 12 undergraduate students each semester in her Child Language Laboratory.

Dimitrios C. Kyritsis, mechanical science and engineering, teaches undergraduate classes in the basics of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, required courses that students often find extraordinarily difficult. He meets this challenge head-on by offering lectures that are, as one colleague writes, “models of clarity” enlivened by his infectious enthusiasm. Although his courses are demanding, he knows well how to help his students navigate every challenge he puts before them. In addition to maintaining a supportive classroom environment, Kyritsis also mentors undergraduate students and offers them opportunities to work with him as laboratory assistants.

Courses taught by Robert Pahre, political science, range from conventional undergraduate courses that focus on international political economy and the European Union to innovative courses such as those focused on environmental policy. In addition, many students have benefited from the travel experiences associated with Pahre’s courses. A student who enjoyed Pahre’s experiential learning techniques writes that he “allows students to figure out the answers themselves” and that he “leads by example” and “inspires and motivates others.”

Instructional staff members who received the award:

Barbara Hug, a clinical professor in curriculum and instruction, weaves two themes into all of her courses: scientific literacy and the use of technology in science. She provides students with valuable opportunities to design and teach their own lessons. Students describe her teaching style as one that challenges their beliefs and encourages them to evaluate critically their world views. Her dedication to students has led many to characterize her as “influential” and “phenomenal.”

In his narrative writing courses, John Rubins, an instructor in English, promotes an atmosphere of unrestricted creativity and constructive critique. In this spirit, he opens his life as a writer to scrutiny. Students often take multiple classes from Rubins in the hope of advancing their art under his guidance. A colleague attributes Rubins’ success in the classroom to his desire for students to “experience directly the lessons of the humanities.”

The teaching style of Peter S. Sheldon, a lecturer in advertising, has been called “passionate” and inspirational. In all of his courses, Sheldon conveys crucial concepts with clarity and grace. Students respond well to the industry professionals he brings into the classroom who help apply workplace standards in the evaluation of student portfolios. Students describe Sheldon as unusually demanding – but also respectful of their creativity.

Graduate teaching assistants who received the award are Adam C. Irish, political science; Ryan M. Jones, history; Amy L. Norgard, classics; Mary I. Unger, English; and Amanda Vicary, psychology.

The awards recognize professors, instructional staff members and graduate teaching assistants who display consistently excellent performance in the classroom, take innovative approaches to teaching, positively affect the lives of their students, and make other contributions to improved instruction, including influencing the curriculum.

Faculty members and instructional staff members selected for the awards each receive $5,000 cash and a $3,000 recurring salary increase; graduate teaching assistants receive $3,500.

Other award winners honored:

Roy A. Axford, a professor of nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering, and Bruce A. Conway, a professor of aerospace engineering, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Teaching. Each receives $5,000 and a $3,000 recurring salary increase.

Axford’s commitment to his students in his 45 years as a faculty member at Illinois has been reflected in innovative instructional methods and outstanding teaching evaluations. Former undergraduate and graduate students number among the nation’s most prominent nuclear professionals. A former student writes that one of Axford’s distinguishing features is his “ability to explain advance concepts to students without compromising mathematical rigor.”

Conway’s dedication to graduate education can be measured not only by his positive teaching evaluations, but also by the fact that six of his 13 Ph.D. advisees have become university professors. He exhibits a dynamic classroom style that enlivens the presentation of difficult mathematical concepts. Conway’s students appreciate his ability to “explain hard concepts clearly” as he helps them solve complex problems in engineering.

Scott K. Silverman, a professor of chemistry, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Guiding Undergraduate Research. The $2,000 award is designed to foster and reward excellence in involving and guiding undergraduate students in scholarly research. On a campus that values undergraduate research, Silverman’s involvement of undergraduates in ongoing research activities is in all ways exemplary. Undergraduates in the Silverman lab credit their mentor with a philosophy that places great emphasis on their “development and maturation” as scientists.

Shiv G. Kapoor, a professor of mechanical science and engineering, and Shelly J. Schmidt, a professor of food chemistry, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring, which provides each recipient with $2,000.

Many of Kapoor’s nearly 90 master’s and 34 doctoral students have gone on to hold positions at major research universities, have emerged as leaders in industrial and national research laboratories, or have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs. Kapoor maintains a robust research portfolio while also attending with great care to the students he mentors. Kapoor’s former students speak highly of his “willingness to engage in collaborations” and his creation of an “incredible learning environment.”

Schmidt is dedicated to readying her students for successful careers, and she is equally committed to sustaining their individual well-being. Colleagues report that she offers students in her lab a “promise and a warning.” The promise is “a commitment to help them no matter what issue or problem arises, and the warning . . . is to let them know that if she sees them heading in a ‘dangerous’ direction, either professionally or personally, she will talk with them about it.” The result: Schmidt’s students graduate well prepared to keep work and life in productive balance.

Liang Y. Liu, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Umberto Ravaioli, the senior assistant dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Engineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising, which provides each recipient with $2,000.

Liu is described as “passionate” about advising. He develops a sense of trust and friendship with his students. He was responsible for the department’s “Fall Kick-Off” at which freshmen could learn about the department from faculty and staff members, and upper-class undergraduates. Liu also revised the introductory course required of all freshmen in his department, which now engages small groups in civil engineering projects that require collaborative research and problem-solving.

In his role as an academic adviser, Ravaioli works tirelessly to understand students’ perspectives and to guide them toward course work and co-curricular experiences that are designed to help them grow toward the goal of becoming engineers. Ravaioli works with College of Engineering undergraduates, as well as Division of General Studies students who are looking to transfer into an engineering discipline. One student notes that because Ravaioli takes students’ “personal and academic issues to heart,” his influence is nothing short of “life-changing.”

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