Outstanding students deserve outstanding teachers, and each spring, the West Virginia University Foundation lifts up several instructors who enliven their classrooms and groom students for ultimate success.
Meet the 2013 recipients of the WVU Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching:
• Fonda Holehouse, agricultural and resource economics
• Powsiri Klinkhachorn, Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
• Anne Lofaso, law
• Richard Riley, accounting
• Jennifer Robertson-Honecker, chemistry
• Matthew Valenti, Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
The WVU Foundation began giving out the awards in 1985 as a way to celebrate faculty who’ve established patterns of distinguished teaching and exceptional innovation in teaching methods, course and curriculum design, and instructional tools. For a list of recipients over the years, click here.
Joining the list this year are:
Fonda Holehouse’s students become attorneys, engineers and entrepreneurs.
An attorney and graduate of the WVU College of Law, Holehouse started teaching at WVU as an adjunct and now teaches environmental, agricultural and business law as well as entrepreneurship courses in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the College of Business and Economics and the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.
Her students praise her for her handling of the innovative topics she teaches and for her personal interest in them. Her hands-on case study approach incorporates not only innovative classroom instruction but also mentorship and support.
Holehouse is developing a major in energy and environmental management – E Quad – which incorporates courses in energy, the environment, entrepreneurship and economics. She is the sole professor for the agriculture and natural resource law minor. She has developed six law-related courses for the Davis College in the hopes of preparing her students for careers in areas that include not only the law and agriculture and natural resources but also the shale gas industry that is emerging in the region and the coal extraction industry that has long been a part of the state’s economic underpinnings.
“I teach because the university classroom is an environment like no other,” Holehouse said. “I have the opportunity to inform, to demonstrate and hopefully inspire my students. I treat them as if they are what they ought to be and try to help them become what they are capable of being.”
Richard Marsh, an attorney with McNeer, Highland, McMunn and Varner in Clarksburg, a “2012 Rising Star Super Lawyer,” says that Holehouse encouraged him to become an attorney, writing recommendation letters, mentoring him, and through her classes, preparing him for the rigors of law school.
“She has been a fixture in many students’ collegiate careers and helped them gain knowledge and assisted them in finding success,” he said. “I believe that is the best judge of the overall effectiveness of a professor and if it is, then Fonda deserves the highest possible grade.”
Distinguished professional and academic titles are hallmarks of Dr. Powsiri Klinkhachorn’s students.
But Klinkhachorn’s passion for teaching doesn’t begin and end with the highest achievers.
“Dr. Klink,” as he is known to his students, friends and colleagues, is an equal opportunity educator who is as invested in the success of a middle school student pondering a possible career as an engineer as he is a doctoral candidate who is poised to become an industry leader.
Klinkhachorn, of the Statler College, teaches some of the most challenging courses offered through the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. But he is perhaps best known within the University community for his work in robotics. For the past three years, he has led a multidisciplinary team of students in a set of international competitions sponsored by NASA.
Students regularly mention his classes as the best they’ve had; even Space Shuttle pilot and WVU alumnus Jon McBride, who has worked with the University’s student team, has been impressed with Klinkhachorn’s skills.
“When I encouraged WVU to participate in the NASA Lunabotics competition two years ago at the Kennedy Space Center, ‘Klink,’ with less than two months to prepare, assembled a team, designed and built WVU’s robotic miner,” McBride said. “The amazing part of the story is that WVU finished second among 70 highly rated universities from all parts of our planet. They (WVU’s robotics teams) have now established themselves as the ‘teams to beat’ and have elevated our engineering school to a position of prominence as viewed by the NASA coordinators and educators.”
He continued: “I have had the opportunity during my career to work with world class individuals. These are the men and women who have reached a level of distinction that separates them from the rest. ‘Klink’ fits into that category. His work ethic is highly admirable; his teaching ability is beyond reproach; his demeanor is enviable (warm, affable and receptive). A ‘true professional’ is the best descriptive.”
Klinkhachorn’s robotics projects are not only topnotch educational tools, but demonstrations of the projects have become an effective recruiting tool for the department and the college. Klinkhachorn and his students have spent countless hours over the past few years in outreach and recruiting activities directed at middle school, high school, and freshman students.
Anne Lofaso doesn’t pretend to be any smarter than the students she teaches at the WVU College of Law.
Maybe that’s why they love her so much.
Or maybe it’s because of her “energy” or “humor” and “self-deprecation.”
Perhaps it’s all of those things and more combined with a natural desire to teach.
Some of the professors Lofaso had in college weren’t fun at all – they were a demanding sort who put students on the hot seat to the brink of possible humiliation.
Lofaso thinks of those professors and does the complete opposite.
“I always hear that I’m perceived as enthusiastic,” Lofaso said. “I think of law professors as frustrated standup comedians. My approach is to make students want to come to class. They should think class is fun and should not have to realize in the process that they’re actually learning.”
Lofaso came to WVU in 2007 and teaches courses including employment law, labor law and jurisprudence. She earned two law degrees – a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from Oxford – and graduated from Harvard University as an undergrad.
One of her former students, Nicholas Stump, now a reference and electronic services librarian at the College of Law, said in his first year of law school, he heard rumors about the “incredible Professor Lofaso.” He soon learned firsthand that she was that.
“Indeed, many law professors can ‘Socratize’ their students effectively, but Professor Lofaso infused her method with such a deep empathy and electrifying charisma that this often-painful process quite literally became something of a joy to us students,” Stump said.
For some students, Lofaso served as more than just a teacher. Yasmina Rosette Ghantous, who currently holds a judicial clerkship, called Lofaso a dear mentor.
“She will be your fiercest advocate, but also your kindest support system,” Ghantous said. “I had several personal situations arise during law school, and she was the first person I thought of to go to for help. She was there for me when circumstances made me afraid or feel alone, and I will never forget.”
At 29, Richard Riley reached what would be a pinnacle to most careers but instead was a plateau.
He was chief financial officer of a successful business but wasn’t sure if he was moving in the direction he wanted to move. After consulting with two of his mentors, one at WVU and another at Wheeling Jesuit University, Riley decided to pursue a Ph.D. and rejoin the world of academia.
The world of academia has been a better place since.
“It was more of a leap of faith than anything,” said Riley, the Louis F. Tanner Distinguished Professor of Public Accounting at WVU. “But I’ve been here 15 years and I absolutely love it.”
Riley’s passion for education shows in the innovative courses he has designed and the interest he takes in students’ success.
He is best known for developing courses like Fraud and Forensic Accounting Case investigations, which challenges students to investigate and find solutions for real-life fraud cases. The cases come from Riley’s own professional experience, including those he’s heard of and worked on with federal fraud investigators.
He also teaches Marketplace Business Simulation which requires a student team to manage a personal computer manufacturing company in competition with other student teams. Student teams are expected to make all financial, operational, marketing, production and other strategic decisions required to manage the business and, at the end of the exercise, they report the results of their company’s performance, including return on investment, customer satisfaction and market share to venture capitalist investors.
Riley was also one of the authors of Forensic Accounting and Fraud Examination, popular forensic accounting textbook, and helped B&E establish a new Ph.D. program in forensic accounting.
“The hallmark of my classroom approach is to create very challenging, simulated real-world experiences for my students,” Riley said.
That method has proven successful.
As Laura Seybold Greene, a human resources professional and WVU executive MBA grad said of one of Riley’s courses: “Simply put, Dr. Riley brought to life what books could not.”
Jen Robertson-Honecker thought that after she earned a master’s degree at WVU that she would go back to teaching high school science. But she stayed for a Ph.D.
And then she was hired as a teaching professor. In her introductory chemistry classes, she takes a subject that has many students quaking in fear and turns the class time into something both she and her students enjoy.
She relies on demonstrations and exciting, new lab experiments. Her students turn into investigators comparing brands of antacid or measuring fat content in potato chips.
“My ultimate goal is to show students the relevancy of chemistry,” she said. “We often discuss pertinent topics such as: What do the values represent in our annual consumer water report from the utility board? Why are the recommended doses for children’s medication labeled by size and age? Why do we add salt to the roads in the winter instead of sugar?
“I hope that, even if in a very small way, the material shapes their future decisions as consumers, workers and community members”
Her students aren’t only in college. Over a decade or so, she has reached more than 2,000 K-12 students in West Virginia. She is trying to create the first state middle school science fair competition to be held at WVU next year. And she developed an introductory chemistry course to teach education majors how to teach the subject.
Her students repeat a constant refrain. They understood chemistry much better after her class than they did after taking high school classes. Details that had once been hazy are now clear.
Lindsy Boyer, a WVU nursing student, said that after taking Robertson-Honecker’s classes, she knows how metal rusts and why water forms into droplets.
“While performing in-class experiments that changed colors, made gas or combusted before our eyes, she illustrated that she could keep our attention and knew how to include us in the conversations,” Boyer said. “I mean, honestly, what college student doesn’t want to see something blow up in class?”
You might not think something simple like developing a workbook for students would alone attract heaps of praise for an electrical engineering professor.
In 2002, Matthew Valenti first taught a junior-level course required by every electrical engineering student. As the course had undergone a significant curriculum revision, Valenti couldn’t identify a single textbook that adequately covered the diverse topics in the syllabus.
Viewing this struggle as an opportunity, he developed “The Signals and Systems Workbook,” which he provided free of charge to students of his class. Instead of being a formal, rigorous textbook, the workbook provides a working skeleton for class discussion. It also contains several intentional blank spaces for students to fill in during class.
Chair and Professor of the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering Brian Woerner said Valenti’s book is an example of “innovative and effective pedagogy.”
“The skeleton outline helps students resynchronize if their attention fades,” Woerner said. “However, leaving blanks forces the student to be engaged.”
Valenti earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Virginia Tech. He also worked as an electronics engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. In 1999, he came to WVU as an assistant professor. His teaching and research areas include wireless and cellular communication networks, communication and coding theory, and signal processing.
Upon arriving at WVU, he founded the Wireless Communications Research Laboratory, which focuses on the design and analysis of modern wireless networks. The lab has grown to involve five faculty members and about 20 graduate students.
Since 1999, Valenti has also been an investigator on funded research grants in excess of $6 million, of which a significant fraction has been used to provide his graduate students with research assistantships and hire undergraduate researcher assistants.
All of Valenti’s strides in helping students have worked. A former student, Syed Amaar Ahmad, found a passion for communications after taking one of Valenti’s classes.
“Professor Valenti’s teaching style sparked my interest in communications and ensured that I was able to understand the challenging course contents,” said Ahmad, who is now working toward an electrical engineering Ph.D. at Virginia Tech. “Moreover, while teaching Stochastic Systems Theory, unlike some instructors who simply presume that students understand the material, he took the pains to explain the material to everyone even though it was a large class.”
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