November 20, 2014 – Heidi Elmendorf, associate professor in Georgetown College’s biology department, is being honored today as the 2014 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s District of Columbia Professor of the Year.
“In an institution with a long Jesuit tradition of caring about teaching, and a scholarly community [comprising] many faculty who have innovated in their courses, Heidi Elmendorf stands apart as singularly creative and inventive,” says Georgetown Provost Robert Groves. “She has innovated at every level of the curriculum …”
“Each of these curricular and pedagogical innovations embody her commitment to an approach to science that puts student engagement and learning at the center,” he adds, “seeking to bring students into the most rigorously creative dimensions of what it means actually to do science.”
CREATING INNOVATIVE PEDAGOGIES
Elmendorf, director of undergraduate studies in biology and director of science education outreach, is also co-founder of the recent innovative biology of global health major.
As Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis noted in his nomination letter, she also has served as a co-founder and facilitator of the American Society of Microbiology Biology Scholars Network, as a visiting scholar with the Carnegie Foundation, and has received funding for educational initiatives and her research from numerous entities, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
“I am pleased to have this public recognition of what I attempt to do every day – create new opportunities for students to learn in exciting and diverse ways,” says Elmendorf, who came to Georgetown in 1999 and researches the parasite Giardia lamblia with her team of graduate and undergraduate students. “What matters to me most, day in and day out, is doing a good job for my students, and that we successfully introduce new and innovative pedagogies that truly benefit our undergraduate learners.”
FIFTH GEORGETOWN AWARDEE
Elmendorf brings the number of Georgetown faculty members receiving the award to five.
Joan Burggraf Riley, associate professor of human science and nursing in the School of Nursing & Health Studies, won the award in 2009; James Sandefur, professor and chair of Georgetown College’s department of mathematics and statistics, in 2008, biology professor Joseph Neale in 1998, and the late theology professor Monika Konrad Hellwig in 1988.
Sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the awards salute “the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country – those who excel as teachers and influence the lives and careers of their students” and is considered one of the most prestigious awards honoring undergraduate teaching.
Elmendorf is one of 31 “state” winners and four national winners.
John Lippincott, president of CASE, praised this year’s award winners for their innovative approach to teaching and learning and their ability to challenge their students beyond the classroom.
“Many of these professors eschew traditional lectures and rote memorization drills and instead favor a more research-focused approach to pedagogy,” Lippincott says. “These forward-thinking instructors advocate learning by doing, putting their students in the driver’s seat of their own development. … they reinforce their students’ critical thinking skills by regularly challenging them to confront tough issues.”
Anthony S. Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, noted the “extraordinary leadership” of the 2014 award winners.
“Each of our awardees, state and national, brings extraordinary leadership not just to their classrooms, but to their departments, colleges and universities and their respective professional fields,” Bryk says. “…In recognizing their commitment and excellence, their contributions and their demonstrated passion, we support the centrality of teaching on campus and recognize its importance to the future of our country.”
ENGAGING D.C. AND THE WORLD
Elmendorf, who has received numerous teaching awards from Georgetown, co-founded the biology of global health major with her colleague Anne Rosenwald, also an award-winning associate professor in the biology department.
A major part of the gateway course the professors created is asking students to work as teams to develop and publicly present and defend a series of communication-intensive science projects.
In any given year, these include scientific research proposals, science policy white papers, public service announcements and educational projects.
“Students who are biology majors have very rigorous science requirements,” Elmendorf explains, “but the real goal is for them to understand that all of this science is taking place in and is shaped by, and in turn shaping, real-world scenarios.”
A recent project involved students developing a policy statement for how to implement biomedical countermeasures in the event of a botulism attack following guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We timed the project so that it took place just before the government agencies came out with the actual policy,” Elmendorf notes.
She and Rosewald then invited a White House Office of Science Technology official to come into the class and talk with students to evaluate their proposed policy statements.
LEARNING ON A DEEP LEVEL
Elmendorf has also developed and led a program called RISE&Teach for the past decade, through which eight to 10 upperclassmen majoring in the sciences or math student-teach at public and public charter high schools in the District.
Sam Fox (C’14), a former biology of global health major and now first-year student at Georgetown Medical School, participated in RISE&Teach.
“I found that to teach, you need to have a deep understanding of the material…,,” he says, “but you also need passion about the subject, and about teaching. This opportunity also allowed me to utilize my knowledge of biology for service, which is at the forefront of Georgetown's mission. I also think this experience teaching has uniquely prepared me for my career in medicine.”
Colin Leibold (C’15), a biology of global health major and RISE&Teach senior, says he learned “the breadth of biology” in Elmendorf’s foundations of biology course, “the depth of biology” in her biology in global health course and “how biology can change lives” in the RISE &Teach program.
“Academically, Dr. Elmendorf’s teaching techniques have helped me exponentially improve my ability to learn,” says Nicole Kelly (C’15), another biology of global health major. “She made me see that it isn’t important to just know or memorize facts, it is so much more important to really understand different concepts on a deep and meaningful level. She empowers her students to take control of their learning and challenge themselves, but at every step of the way, she is there to help if you stumble.”
Deeyar Itayem (C’14), a biology of global health major who will begin medical school in 2015, also participated in RISE&Teach.
“Professor Elmendorf has been one of the most influential mentors/role models/professors in my life,” Itayem says. “What differentiates her from other professors is her ability to train her students to make connections, to think across disciplines. She trains her students not to think outside the box, but to throw the box away.”
CONNECTING LIFE AND LEARNING
It is perhaps no accident that every Georgetown faculty member who has received the D.C. Professor of the Year award has been involved in the university’s Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning.
Georgetown faculty members create Engelhard courses that relate academic content to health and wellness topics through readings, presentations and discussions led by campus health professionals.
They also assign reflective writing assignments, with some of the courses extending the concepts to help others in local communities, in keeping with the Jesuit tradition of women and men for others.
Leibold says Elmendorf deserves the award because “she cares about every student and believes in his or her potential.”
“She is the definition of a student-centered professor,” Leibold adds. “That requires a unique blend of humility, passion and a loving attitude.”
Elmendorf says Gillis and the previous College dean, Jane McAuliffe, have been “great advocates for the importance of faculty as teachers,” and that having a College within the university is advantageous for both faculty and students.
“Most of my colleagues who are at other research universities don’t have an advocate like that in their deans,” the biology professor says.
That support combined with having Georgetown’s Center for News Designs in Learning & Scholarship, which helps support faculty working to create innovative pedagogies, and the Jesuit traditions of educating the whole person (cura personalis) and women and men for others, make the university a unique place to work.
“I think when President John J. DeGioia talks about the university and the common good, and I think that’s a very Jesuit perspective,” she explains. “That matters because what we doing is educating students not just so that we at the university contribute to the common good, but that our graduates will be individuals who will consider themselves working for the common good.