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UWRF professors honored with excellence awards

September 17, 2015

Three UW-River Falls professors were honored with awards of Teaching Excellence in 2015: Dennis Cooper, Professor Joe Rein and Mark Bergland.

Professor Cooper was the recipient of the 2015 Senior Keith Wurtz Award, Professor Rein was the recipient of the 2015 Junior Keith Wurtz Award, and Professor Bergland was the recipient of the 2015 Paul B. and Robert Dykstra Faculty Excellence Award.

Each award was given based on nominations from colleagues, and each award was accompanied by $1,000. “I’m very gratified,” says Professor Cooper, regarding his award. “It’s nice to be recognized for effort, when you try and work hard at things.”

Cooper’s award, the 2015 Senior Keith Wurtz Award, is given for especially new and “innovative” approaches to teaching, according to the award description on the school’s website. Cooper expands on how he developed his current method of teaching, and why he believes he was nominated for the award.

“I teach some difficult subjects,” he explains. Cooper remarks that these subjects are difficult for students and himself. “I thought that these subjects needed to be taught…I just set myself to the task of figuring out how to get it across. And so I developed or adapted techniques for engaging students and learning these things.”

One example is Cooper’s work in his class Applied Feeds and Feeding. It’s an animal science class which involved a significant portion of math. Cooper says that he adapted much of his grad school experience to the course, which initially avoided much of that material. Now, he says, the course focuses on it until students can deal with it comfortably. “It’s not exciting, it’s not entertaining. The engagement part is just giving them enough practice, and making it about learning and not memorizing.”

Another example is Cooper’s creative approach to his Nutrient Metabolism course. He says that it has chemistry in it, which students find difficult due to its abstract nature. “I developed a technique based on what I call ‘scenarios,’” he says. “That is, rather than emphasize or memorize cellular processes…we develop scenarios, which are stories–it’s just following a carbon atom through an animal.” Cooper thinks that this approach is more interesting. “It’s just having students explain what a carbon atom goes experiences as it goes through the body, and if they understand that…then I think they have a better understanding of how animals function.”

Professor Rein, who won the 2015 Junior Keith Wurtz Award, was awarded for a different kind of innovation in the classroom.

“As far as teaching goes, I’ve been doing a lot of collaborative work,” he explains. “I’m an English teacher, but I’m collaborating with what is now Stage and Screen Arts.” Rein goes on to say that at first, his screenwriting course teamed up with the Stage and Screen department in order to bring scripts to life on the stage, and his collaborative efforts expanded from there.

“We had a course where the film students then filmed it [the scripts], we had an acting course where the students were acting in these short films, and so we sort of collaborated to make these projects that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible through just one course.” He adds that he is now teaching the writing section of a course which is creating a web series with a similar collaboration.

Rein’s initial reaction to receiving the award was surprise. “So many people are doing great things,” he says. However, he continues, “I felt, primarily, honored. It’s nice to be recognized. A lot of us do so much good work teaching in the classroom, and it’s not always those things that get noticed…It was nice being nominated by those around me. And the it was just nice knowing that what I was doing in the classroom wasn’t just staying there, that other people were recognizing the work as well.”

Professor Bergland, who was awarded the 2015 Paul B. and Robert Dykstra Faculty Excellence Award, received it not for his innovation in the classroom but for his work on a project called Case It!, a project that he actually started 20 years ago, funded by the National Science Foundation.

“It’s a software tool that’s used for what’s called case-based learning,” is how he described Case It!. It uses personal examples to help students with their problem-solving skills, he explains. “It’s a molecular-biology computer simulation that I authored,” he says, but he didn’t do it alone. Karen Klyczek and Kim Mogen also significantly contributed to the project.

Case It! is scientific as well as personal in nature. “There are a series of cases that enable you to simulate common laboratory techniques and then use them for case-based learning in biology classes,” Bergland continues. He adds that many high schools are using Case It! now, because it allows them to do many activities virtually that would be much more expensive in reality.

“It was a lot of work, and it’s a real honor to be recognized for something like this,” Bergland says, and he continues to emphasize that he was not alone in the creation and realization of Case It!. Many people helped, he says, and he is “touched and honored” to receive the award.

After the award, each professor plans to continue to pursue his innovation or project. Regarding the award money, all three put it to practical use. Cooper, although he has bills to pay and a boat to fix, mentions a guitar that he would like to buy; Rein, who has three kids, would also like to get some books for himself; and Bergland discusses his dream of having a mobile version of Case It!, and expanding it capabilities.

Cooper concludes, “The most rewarding thing is to hear back from students that say they were in vet school and that my course really helped them.”