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In Praise of Great Teachers

Northwestern recognizes six with McCormick teaching excellence awards

May 19, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- At a May 26 ceremony, six Northwestern University faculty members from three Northwestern schools will be awarded the University’s highest and only University-wide awards for teaching excellence. 

Wesley Burghardt, Dylan R. Penningroth and Michael Peshkin will be named this year’s Charles Deering McCormick Professors of Teaching Excellence. Renee Engeln-Maddox, Larry Stuelpnagel and Ingrid Zeller will be named this year’s Charles Deering McCormick University Distinguished Lecturers.

The Charles Deering McCormick Awards are given to faculty who have consistently demonstrated outstanding performance in classroom teaching or who have developed significant innovations that have influenced the teaching effectiveness of others.

Designated as fellows of the University’s Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, the McCormick honorees will be celebrated at 4 p.m. in Northwestern’s Guild Lounge.


Wesley Burghardt, professor of chemical and biological engineering in the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, in more than 20 years at Northwestern has repeatedly earned extraordinary course and teacher evaluations (CTECs) from his undergraduate and graduate students. As proof of his commitment to his students, from 2005 to 2009, he continued in his role as a student advisor while serving as departmental chair. His teaching is marked by an ability to bring clarity to very difficult concepts in some of the most rigorous and challenging courses in the engineering curriculum. He is widely respected for his ability to show connections between the real world and subjects with elegant mathematical underpinnings, including fluid mechanics and heat transfer. While committed to teaching through participatory lectures, Burghardt also emphasizes the importance of experiential learning. He currently is reintroducing a laboratory component to an undergraduate fluids course that was eliminated from the curriculum in the 1990s. His ability to combine teaching excellence and research is reflected in his more than 80 research publications, scores of lecture invitations from professional societies and universities and in his supervision of more than 30 graduate and research students.

Dylan R. Penningroth, associate professor of history in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is praised by undergraduate and graduate students alike as a demanding and inspiring teacher. Equally adept at captivating students in lectures and challenging them to take and defend positions in classroom discussions, he teaches and researches African American and legal history. Students admire his engaging and clear lecture style, especially in his mainstay course, “Legal and Constitutional History of the U.S. Since 1850.” Penningroth emphasizes hands-on experience, encouraging students to work extensively with primary sources in their research, taking them to the Cook County Courthouse for first-hand observations of criminal trials and urging them to take ownership of the learning process by “speaking, questioning and interpreting” with him in class. His students frequently refer to his eloquence and modesty, his passion for his subject material and his ability to make students care about learning. He first taught at Northwestern in 2002, and, since 2007, has been an American Bar Foundation research professor. A prolific presenter and publisher and a member of the American Society for Legal History’s Board of Director, he received a Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award in 2008 and a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation in 2009. 

Michael Peshkin, professor of mechanical engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, joined the Northwestern faculty in 1987. A bold and creative teaching innovator, he strives to get students out of the “homework mode” and behaving and feeling like real-world engineers. One of the founders of the “Engineering First” program, he designed a core course, “System Dynamics,” for all engineering freshmen. Peshkin made what was previously an upper-level course accessible to freshmen and even wrote the textbook for the course. More recently, he designed another new course, “Electronics Design,” which replaces the traditional laboratory with a portable electronics bench that fits in a backpack. Students’ laptops serve as power supply and oscilloscope display. Pershkin critiques the traditional lab’s constraints on time and place as leading to lab exercises that are “written in reliable cookbook style,” with little room for creativitity. Freed from those constraints, students can work more like engineers. This portable design has been adopted by other professors and allows more students to take classes that had previously been capped due to limited lab space. Peshkin also revamped the annual Design Competition, increasing the expectations for technical accomplishments in the projects. He has added workshops and lectures for the participants, and provides one-on-one consultation to help design teams succeed. For his contributions to the curriculum and his excellence in the classroom, Peshkin consistently earns high CTEC scores and enthusiastic praise from students who value his “commitment to their success.”


Renee Engeln-Maddox, senior lecturer in psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, quickly became one of the most popular and beloved teachers in the department after her arrival in 2006. She teaches a wide range of classes on a variety of topics -- from lectures with hundreds of students to small seminars and from “Research Methods” to the “Psychology of Beauty.” “She can teach nearly anything,” says her department chair. “And no matter what she teaches, the students give her overwhelmingly stellar marks.”  The two foundations of her teaching philosophy are challenge and accessibility. She challenges her students and supports them through multiple drafts on writing assignments, gives them detailed feedback and makes herself available in individual meetings that often take place on weekends or evenings. Engeln-Maddox develops strong rapport with her students, not only by helping them with course material but also by mentoring them professionally and personally. At Loyola University, where she taught prior to Northwestern, she won the annual Edwin T. and Vivijeanne F. Sujack Award for Teaching Excellence given to the best teachers in the College of Arts and Sciences. At Northwestern, she earned a Weinberg College Alumni Teaching award in 2009 and has been named to the Associated Student Government Faculty Honor Roll each year since 2007.

Larry Stuelpnagel, assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism who holds a joint appointment in political science and American studies at Weinberg College, describes his role as one that “gets the best of both teaching worlds at Northwestern.” His commitment to journalism education extends to all levels -- from the teaching of foundational freshman discussion sections to upper-level independent studies. His sophomore Medill students complete reporting assignments in print, slide shows and videos from Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. In his political science and American studies classes, he teaches about media and the intersection of politics and economics. Stuelpnagel’s tireless guidance to students as the volunteer faculty advisor to the Northwestern News Network (NNN) has resulted in two national and three Chicago/Midwest student Emmy awards. Under his guidance, NNN recently added its first all-Spanish language newscast. Stuelpnagel was an award-winning television reporter, news director, senior correspondent and backup anchor before joining Northwestern in 1995. His students and department chair praise his commitment to diversity and to helping all his students develop strong writing and critical thinking skills, an ability to tell engaging stories, and the acquisition of a unique voice.

Ingrid Zeller, senior lecturer in German in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, received an undergraduate degree in music from the Manhattan School of Music and a master’s degree in German language and literature from Columbia University, where she concentrated on language pedagogy and the intersections of music and literature. She combines her passion for music, architecture and film by developing unique courses in each area, and is praised by students and faculty alike for her creative approaches to teaching. Zeller draws on outside resources, at Northwestern and in Chicago, to enhance her teaching while building strong relationships through her activities in the Chicago community. A certified docent at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Zeller takes her students on culturally and linguistically relevant architecture tours in downtown Chicago.  She has collaborated with a colleague in Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music to create a truly interdisciplinary course called “Intensive German Through Musical Journeys In Vienna.” She also spearheaded and serves as director of the German department’s Writing Center, where she often meets individually with students on weekends and evenings. The center has become an invaluable resource to students and professors in the department. Zeller, who has been elected to the Associated Student Government Faculty Honor Roll every year between 2003 and 2008, received the Northwestern Alumni Association Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2005.

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