Cordeiro, Leonard, Lewis and Venkataraman Honored for Teaching

Lorraine Cordeiro
William Leonard
Megan Lewis
Dhandapani Venkataraman

Among those acknowledged at this month’s Commencement ceremonies were the recipients of the Distinguished Teaching Award, the campus’ highest honor for classroom excellence. The award this year went to Lorraine Cordeiro, nutrition, William Leonard, electrical and computer engineering, Megan Lewis, theater, and Dhandapani Venkataraman, chemistry.

Since its inception in 1962, the Distinguished Teaching Awards honor pedagogical excellence and are unique in being entirely student-driven: only current students and alumni may nominate faculty members and the selection process ensures continued input from students. Each year committees review more than 100 nominations, collecting and analyzing data in order to select a handful of faculty recipients.

The four faculty members were presented their awards at the Honors Dinner on April 22. They each received a plaque and $3,500.

Lorraine Cordeiro, assistant professor of nutrition

“Dr. Cordeiro is extremely passionate about teaching and going to class is something that I look forward to. I leave Dr. Cordeiro’s class inspired every single day and she absolutely deserves this award,” wrote one of her students in a nominating letter for the award.

“Lorraine Cordeiro is a gifted educator challenging her students to not only learn the principles of nutrition but guiding them to understand how nutrition impacts communities close to home and worlds away. In her ‘Community Nutrition Course’ she gives students context and works to help them develop critical thinking skills giving them the tools to be able to go out and use their knowledge of nutrition to work in the community in a real life context,” said Provost Katherine Newman in remarks delivered at the Honors Dinner.

Cordeiro received her Ph.D. from Tufts University, and her research focuses on household food security and adolescent nutritional health. She is currently investigating the associations between food security, food practices, and health risks among Cambodian women in Massachusetts.

The School of Public Health and Health Sciences named Cordeiro the SPHHS College Outstanding Teacher in 2013, and she is also a past recipient of the Office of Civic Engagement and Service-Learning faculty fellowship, and a co-recipient with former nutrition faculty Jerusha Peterman of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell’s Distinguished Research Partnership Award.

“Dr. Cordeiro believes in enabling others – teaching her students to synthesize information as an individual and within interdisciplinary contexts. Her classrooms are exceptionally engaging and demanding yet they allow students to feel comfortable expressing their ideas while critically discussing the pros, cons, and perceived public opinions of solutions to domestic and global health issues,” added Newman.

William Leonard, senior lecturer in electrical and computer engineering

Leonard earned his Ph.D. in physics at UMass Amherst in 1988, and his research is about “learning.” It deals with engineering education, rate of learning models, expert-novice differences, alternative assessments, and his invention of “Mastery” learning.

In the Mastery-learning approach, there are no midterms, no final exam, no weekly quizzes, and no traditional homework. Instead, students work through a set of 16 online modules, for which there is incentive to earn a perfect score, and additional incentive to do so before they are due.  To earn at least a C, a student needs to master at least 9 or 10 modules.

As ECE department head Christopher Hollot wrote, “It was clear to me from day one that Bill was a very, very special teacher. He thinks deeply about how students learn, he cares about students, and he invests enormous amounts of time and energy in his craft. He made a keen observation in his first pass through these circuits courses; i.e., that due to partial-credit scoring in exams, students can pass the course with only partial knowledge of key topics and that this has detrimental effect on both student learning and on our program. This observation was the basis for his invention of Mastery, its application to our circuits courses, its continued refinement and his receipt in 2009 of the Benjamin J. Dasher Best Paper Award, given by the American Society of Engineering Education.”

Leonard is universally adored by engineering undergraduates, as demonstrated by how he regularly dominates the end-of-year student award for ECE Best Teacher. Faculty members jokingly mention that this award should be renamed the “Leonard Teaching Award” so that other ECE faculty members have a chance to win.

“There is absolutely no reason why an instructor should go out of his or her way to make a course hard,” one of Leonard’s students explained. “After all, I am not paying the university to teach myself! The courses [Dr.] Leonard teaches are very tough; but because of the pride he has taken in educating the youth, he has made learning the material easy. He provides all of his lectures online, which are imperative for days you truly cannot make it to class. He also provides pre-class exercises, in-class exercises, and sometimes makes us do complex calculations in class to make sure we know what we are doing.”

“In closing,” Hollot added, “Bill Leonard has a deep and rich teaching persona. My mental model of this has three layers. The first layer is one of a very caring and approachable teacher; the second is one of tough love characterized by high standards and a willingness to make hard and unpopular decisions; and the third is one of learning and adaptation. Bill doesn’t rest. He is always in improvement mode and incorporates feedback that he receives from both student and colleagues.”  

Megan Lewis, assistant professor of theater

Lewis, who joined the faculty in the 2011-12 school year, received the award on the strength of her passion and skill for teaching both general education and advanced theater courses, her embrace of modern technologies to engage students, and a breadth of course topics that ranges from the arts in South Africa to drama and the media.

Student reviews of her classes consistently speak to her enthusiasm and also mention the way Lewis successfully encourages students to engage with potentially intimidating or hot button topics. “Professor Lewis made this class of 80 feel like a class of 20,” one student said.

Lewis originally hails from South Africa but has lived in the United States for many years. She came to UMass Amherst by way of Minnesota; she received her Ph.D. in theater from the University of Minnesota, where she also taught theater, media and film courses for several years. Lewis’ areas of interest as a teacher and scholar include the staging of national identity, gender and race in a variety of performance media—including monuments and public pageants, traditional staged texts, and documentary and narrative films. “Magnet Theatre: Three Decades of Making Space,” a collection of essays and interviews about Cape Town-based Magnet Theatre’s 25 years of theater-making in South Africa she is co-editing with Anton Krueger of Rhodes University, is due out in early 2016 from Intellect Books and the University of South Africa. A manuscript, “A Whitely Nation: Performing and Reforming the Afrikaner in South African Theatrical and Public Life,” is currently in review.

Dhandapani Venkataraman, professor of chemistry

Dhandapani Venkataraman, known to all as DV, came to campus in 1999 and teaches mostly organic chemistry courses. He enjoys teaching, “because you get to test your own understanding of the subject. When a student asks a question and you don’t give a convincing answer, you say to yourself, ‘I have to go back and fix that.’ Students always challenge you, they keep the whole thing fresh.”

A teacher comes in with a set of assumptions, and you may find that it just doesn’t work. “If students don’t get it, it’s missing something and that’s my responsibility. They need to get it and I can’t walk away.”

DV, who does not use a textbook and encourages group work, has in the recent past taught his usual courses plus classes in the integrated concentration in science (iCons) program, which can be challenging but is very rewarding, he says. The program has profoundly influenced his teaching style, he notes. In traditional teaching, the instructor provides the context for lessons, he says, “But with iCons, the students come up with the context, which tells you how they’re thinking. The story in their minds is different than the logic in the teacher’s mind. The teacher first has to figure out that ‘Known Knowns’ and the ‘Known Unknowns’ among his students before he can know where to begin.”

When he has succeeded as a teacher, DV says, “There is simply joy in seeing a student get it. You give them a problem and they solve it. Wow!” All his exams are open book and he rejects the education systems that heavily penalizes mistakes. “I grew up afraid to make mistakes, which is a terrible way to learn. It is important to not be afraid of making mistakes; I want my students to be comfortable coming up with an answer even though it may be wrong. That is where we start to find out why you got it wrong and what you need to know going forward.”

Another aspect of teaching he increasingly finds enjoyable and interesting is learning how different people learn, particularly the psychological process. He’s curious about retention and recall. Inspired by a conversation he had on the #45 bus on his way to work, a common space for collaboration, he adds, DV is currently thinking of putting scientists on stage to talk about their work using improv to reach new audiences.

In presenting the award to Venkataraman, Provost Katherine Newman called his teaching “exceptional, eclectic and innovative.” She noted that as one of the founders of the iCons program, he helps students develop critical thinking, problem solving and decision making skills that apply to their coursework and their life beyond the classroom. “Working as teams they identify what they know about a problem, Known Knowns, and what they don’t know about a problem, Known Unknowns,” which are different for each student. “They verify their Known Knowns through primary literature and observed data. Once a problem is solved, students reflect on their learning and refine their Knowns and Unknowns. It’s a Known Known that I am pleased to award the Distinguished Teaching Award to Dhandapani Venkataraman,” Newman said.

One of his students wrote, “As DV’s student for three semesters, I was transformed from an average learner, waiting to receive a basic lecture, to a student who is capable of tackling complex problems and never satisfied with a mediocre solution. What DV taught me at UMass Amherst has had a huge impact on my abilities as a scientist and my career path thus far as a young professional.”

These faculty profiles were compiled from articles prepared by the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, College of Humanities and Fine Arts and the College of Engineering. The profile of Dhandapani Venkataraman was written by Janet Lathrop of News and Media Relations.