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UA Professors Honored for Teaching, Mentorship and Outreach
Monday, April 2, 2012
University Communications

This year's Distinguished Professor and Distinguished Outreach Faculty awards recognize four UA faculty members with exceptional achievements and passion for fostering collaboration and enabling individuals to overcome obstacles.

Paul Blowers of the University of Arizona department of chemical and environmental engineering and Judith Bronstein in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology have been named 2012 University Distinguished Professors.

Todd Fletcher of the department of disability and psychoeducational studies and Sally Stevens of the Southwest Institute for Research on Women are the recipients of University Distinguished Outreach Faculty awards.

Distinguished professorships are awarded based on the recipients' outstanding commitment to undergraduate education. At least half of their teaching assignments include undergraduate teaching combined with advising and mentoring undergraduates.

They also have a record of strong research that has been applied in undergraduate classrooms. The awards will be presented by the Arizona Board of Regents during a special ceremony in December.

"Amazing" is how Blowers described receiving the UA's highest teaching honor in recognition of doing something he loves.

Since his undergraduate days, Blowers said a holistic approach to forging a successful academic career that balanced teaching, research and outside interests has been important to him. "The balance was critical to me," Blowers said. "And I've had it here," he said, talking about the UA.

Early in his career, Blowers chose the UA over other offers because he recognized the faculty in his department were good at research, he said, "but also cared deeply about teaching as well, while still having outside lives."

In 2010, Blowers received the Five Star Faculty Award, an honor given by students. He also received one of two Leicester and Kathryn Sherrill Creative Teaching Awards from the UA Foundation, in addition to being selected as an Honors Professor. For his excellence in teaching and research combined with service, he was named the 2010 da Vinci fellow by the UA College of Engineering's giving society, the da Vinci Circle.

Blowers recalls a student once asked him how he stayed motivated when things got tough. "I can't believe I get paid to do this," replied Blowers, almost without thinking. "I think that sums up my passion for working with students and helping them overcome challenges as both an advisor and instructor."

An alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Blowers' current research includes using chemical engineering principles to predict the environmental impact and global warming potential of chemicals.

For Bronstein, the recognition reflects on the one central theme that lies at the heart of both her scientific interest and her role as a professor: building collaboration and mentorship and getting people to work together. As a researcher, she has dedicated her career to studying cooperation in nature.

"How can cooperation emerge in a fundamentally competitive world?" she said. "It's so easy to figure out why organisms should not cooperate, but we see it happen all the time, not just in our society, but in nature as well. It's a huge topic among philosophers, anthropologists and historians."

Bronstein's work has contributed to mutualistic relationships among organisms being recognized as a fundamental evolutionary and ecological driver.

"Cooperation is much more common in nature and far more important in structuring ecosystems than anyone would have thought," she said. "Because of that, it is of pressing conservation concern. If certain key mutualisms are disrupted, it creates risks to the integrity of a whole community or even ecosystem that hadn't previously been recognized."

Bronstein believes that humans can learn a lot from nature. Just like organisms coexisting in an ecosystem, people depend on cooperation and mentorship, she said. Her lab is open for anyone who wants to get involved, regardless of GPA. Many students who would have never previously dared to approach a professor have participated in her research.

Bronstein's interests in teaching and mentoring aren't restricted to the university level. Directing a $3 million, five-year, NSF-funded training program called BioME: Biodiversity from Molecules to Ecosystems, Bronstein has worked to create and foster partnerships between the University and local school districts, engaging thousands of children in hands-on activities in ecology, evolution, biodiversity and conservation.

BioME has enabled 52 UA graduate students to partner with more than 70 teachers in more than 50 Tucson public and charter schools from grades K-12, most of them serving minority and disadvantaged populations. The program successfully showed that it has increased the flow of well-trained science students, many of them minorities, toward the UA.

"Individual mentorship lies at the heart of my teaching," she said. "A lot of it is letting the students know that I actually care about them as an individual and their individual success. And it works. They're a lot happier as college students, and they are more confident that they have the tools to do whatever it is that they want to do. I get a huge satisfaction out of that."

The University Distinguished Outreach Faculty Award recognizes outstanding contributions to outreach at the UA, in the state of Arizona and the nation. Recipients must have demonstrated sustained excellence in the University's outreach mission.

Fletcher said his commitment to outreach comes from a range of sources: his prior educational training in Mexico, his motivation and drive, and also his connection with the Bahá'í Faith.

"Service is a priority to me. My personal and professional philosophy are linked directly to the spiritual tradition of the Bahá'í Faith – the focus on serving others and helping others reach their ability and potential," said Fletcher, who created an educational community center, Resplandor International, in a converted home that was once abandoned located in Cajones in Central Mexico. 

In the founding of Resplandor, Fletcher wanted to engage the community, improve the school experience for students there, particularly those with disabilities, while also providing essential training opportunities for teachers and researchers. For each of the last two years, about 130 youth from the local communities have been involved in courses on electricity, journalism, "Earth-keepers," guitar and dance, among others.

Fletcher, who considers himself a "world citizen," also coordinates the UA's specialty program in bilingual/multicultural special education, one of only a few such programs in the nation.

He also is and has been engaged in work in other Latin American countries, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Peru, Costa Rica, Chile and Ecuador, often participating in conferences and educational initiatives. "Individual initiative is important, but you have to connect with others who share your vision and passion," he said.

About receiving the UA's distinguished designation, Fletcher said it was a "great honor. I hope more and more credence is giving to this type of work."

Also awarded was Stevens, executive director of the Southwest Institute, which collaborates with community organizations, schools, government agencies and individuals on research, evaluation and the offering of direct services. 

"I am deeply committed to outreach and service in Arizona, particularly within the Tucson community," Stevens said, adding that the institute informs on local and national policy issues.

"Much of my work is aimed at improving and enhancing the lives of people – many who are disenfranchised and whose life context situates them in unjust circumstances," Stevens also said. "Finding ways to reduce disparities, offer assistance, and empower individuals is very gratifying work."

Stevens said she is "extremely honored" to receive the designation.

"I am grateful that service and outreach work is recognized at the University of Arizona, especially given our land grant university mission," she said.

"Being named a Distinguished Outreach Professor gives credence to my many years of commitment to our community and the individuals who live in Southern Arizona. Perhaps, most importantly, this designation inspires me to continue my work and engage in important outreach activities for many years to come."