2020-21 Distinguished Teaching Award Winners

R. Mark Leckie
R. Mark Leckie

Since 1961, the University of Massachusetts has presented the Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA) to instructors who demonstrate exemplary teaching at the highest institutional level.

This campus-wide honor is the only student-initiated award on campus. This year’s review committees, comprised of former DTA winners, noted particularly how difficult their task was given the excellence of the nominees and how exceptional these award winners are.

The 2020-21 winners are as follows:

R. Mark Leckie

Mark Leckie, professor, chief undergraduate advisor for geology and earth systems, and a former Lilly fellow, has been at UMass since 1985. He has taught at all levels of courses from first year seminars to large-enrollment general education courses, core geology undergraduate courses and seminars. His teaching goals focus on making science accessible to non-science undergrads, preparing UMass’s geology and earth systems majors to be geosciences professionals and sharing the excitement of discovery with his graduate students. He pioneered the two-stage (‘pyramid’) exams on this campus, which have been a huge success for promoting student active learning.

Leckie consistently receives excellent student evaluations, notably in those large freshman‐level service courses. One student recounted, “A lot of students who are not in geosciences can be intimidated, or just not interested, but it is hard to dislike a class with such an enthusiastic and dedicated professor. Leckie brings a certain energy to the classroom and although the classwork can be challenging, his students are often eager to learn, and he is supportive the whole way through,” and “He makes whatever he is teaching accessible to a broad range of undergraduate students, both to STEM and non-STEM majors. He works to connect key concepts in the geosciences with aspects of the students’ lives to make the material more interesting and applicable.”

Leckie has many excellent qualities as a teacher, but perhaps his best quality is that he shows genuine interest in his students, as one of his students stated, “All of his teaching, mentoring, and advising practices are inclusive, and have helped numerous undergraduate students find their passions both within and outside of the geosciences.”

Melissa A. Baker

Since Melissa Baker arrived at UMass in 2013, she has continuously seeking to improve her teaching and to build a community of more engaged teachers and learners. Baker was a Lilly Fellow in 2018 and employs innovative teaching approaches. For example, she created an imaginative Shark Tank project in her HTM 355 course to help students gain first-hand experience in all aspects of a business.

To facilitate student learning, Baker uses unique and personal experiences related to the concepts. Students from her class said, “A lot of professors just teach the material without relating it to anything or having any personal experience in the class they are teaching. Melissa Baker had stories to tell for each section and it helped you put yourself in the material and learn it better.”

Besides classroom teaching, Baker has also led five short-term study abroad programs across Europe. It provides the most experiential, hands-on learning experience for her students. One student commented: “Dr. Baker opened our eyes to things we surely would not have seen and facilitated conversations providing a global perspective of the industry…Learning outside the classroom presents unique challenges, especially abroad with a group of college students. However, for Dr. Baker, this came naturally and she taught her students with ease, providing instruction and learning opportunities at every turn.”

Baker possesses a passion for hospitality, as one of her students commented: “She isn’t just teaching hospitality, she is teaching the passion for hospitality.”

Rae Walker

Rae Walker joined UMass Amherst in September of 2014. As the former chair of the College of Nursing Diversity and Social Justice Committee, Walker led efforts to host the inaugural Seedworks Social Justice symposium, and established the first gender-inclusive bathroom facilities for students, staff and faculty in Skinner Hall.

Connection is a central theme of Walker’s approach to teaching and learning. In one student’s words: “The passion that Dr. Walker shares for their students is unparalleled. They take their time to ensure they answered all students’ questions and even reach out afterwards. Dr. Walker understands the struggles of a twentieth century university student. In most classes, the professor and the student might seem disconnected, but Dr. Walker’s class was one which always seemed to end too soon.”

Walker is a sought-after mentor –informal and formal –for students internal and external to the College of Nursing and even beyond UMass. As one former student commented: “As a young African American man, it is often difficult to find people in nursing leadership who look like me. Dr. Walker’s humanity and empathy made me feel like I could be one of those nursing leaders.”

Lisa Modenos

Lisa Modenos, a current TIDE Fellow, has been a faculty member in the University Without Walls (UWW) since 2012. Modenos served as the co-director of the UWW during the 2019 year; she led the program to be more responsive and aware of the needs of adult learners.

Modenos’ teaching style is grounded in her own first-generation working class identify. She allows students to be themselves, incomplete, imperfect and different; and to help students feel a sense of belonging. One student commented about arriving at the UMass campus and meeting Modenos at the UWW student orientation: “As soon as Lisa stepped up to the podium, I felt a sense of belonging. Something I never felt as an 18-year-old student at my previous University. I felt as if she were speaking directly to all of the fears and anxieties I had about starting school again. I felt she understood what I was looking for in an educational experience and truly understood where I was coming from.”

Modenos’s course evaluations often include perfect scores of 5.0 for many areas. Students described her as ““Responsive, considerate, understanding, kind, enlightening, knowledgeable, and comical.” Another calls her “the perfect ambassador for UWW” who “understands the context of a retuning, working student.” Several applaud her ability to inspire critical thinking and meaningful discussion, and her detailed attention to their written work.

Alexander Ponomareff

Alexander Ponomareff is a doctoral student in the department of comparative literature, whose research and teaching interests focus on media, graphic novel and race. He has taught six general education courses for the comparative literature program, two first year seminars and a course in the English program.

He has a deep commitment of intentionality in his teaching approaches and communication, and group learning is fundamental to his teaching approach. He believes that an intentional teacher not only knows why and how they have structured a course, but also shares that understanding with students.

His courses focus more than on just developing students’ competence in a particular area of study, he also dedicates his course to his students, adapting it to the varied personalities in his class to promote a genuine curiosity and excitement to learn. One student noted: “He made his course more than reading about dystopias and utopias because he made it about the world around us.” Another student reflected: “What Professor Ponomareff understands is that his students are always more important than his course. I was taking his course simply to fill one of my last requirements before graduating, but it quickly became one that I looked forward to attending every week.”

Shaina Sadai

Shaina Sadai is a doctoral student in the department of geosciences, whose research and teaching interests focus on teaching-as-research, climate change, diversity, equity and inclusion in the classroom. In her First Year Seminar class: “It’s a Hot Mess,” Shaina strives to have students learned both the science of climate change along with the societal context and consequences. In the course evaluations for the three years she has taught the course, students commented both on how much they have learned about climate change and its social impact, and about how much they enjoyed the class and felt a part of a supportive community. As one student commented: “She opened my eyes to climate issues I never thought could be so impactful, such as the fashion industry, lack of representation with indigenous groups, the absence of communication within the recycling industry, and more. She not only showed us the perspective of the people and land that are affected by climate change, but she showed us the science behind it.”

In her first year seminar classes, Shaina always formed a close relationship with all of her students. One student recounted: “One of my favorite class memories is when we would finish our lesson early, she would tell us about her garden. She would show us around and explain each plant to us and tell us funny stories of animals she sees in her yard. Our class loved this so much we would often run over our designated class time because no one wanted to leave!”