UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Alan MacEachren, professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and Esther Prins, professor of education in the College of Education, have received Penn State's 2019 Graduate Faculty Teaching Award.
The award, established in 1992 by The Graduate School, is presented to faculty members in recognition of outstanding teaching performance and advising of graduate students.
As a member of the Penn State faculty since 1985, colleagues said MacEachren has been at the forefront of a field that has undergone radical transformations from static maps produced in hard-copy form to digitally produced geographic visualizations. MacEachren is an internationally recognized leader in these areas, pioneering ways people interact and collaborate in real-time exploratory analyses and visualizations of geographic data sets. His work applies to epidemiology, crisis management and the environment.
One way MacEachren advances his graduate students is by heavily involving them in research with the GeoVISTA Center, where he is the director. The center coordinates and integrates research in geographic information science, focusing on human-centered technologies that paint a picture of scientific, social and environmental issues so that stakeholders can make informed decisions.
Colleagues said MacEachren treats his graduate students as co-principal investigators on his research projects, encouraging students to develop their own research topics that adhere to the center’s mission.
MacEachren is also credited with transforming the curriculum at Penn State so that it keeps pace with the rapidly evolving field.
“Alan has developed a series of challenging and relevant courses at Penn State, with ‘developed’ being the key word,” a nominator said. “Some develop a course by making minor changes to the course material. In Alan’s case, it’s different and much more challenging. His field of research is heavily dependent on the application of new technologies. As a consequence, his courses must change each year to accommodate these new technologies.”
MacEachren said his philosophy for teaching and mentoring graduate students is simple: enable them to develop the knowledge, technical skills, critical thinking abilities and broader perspectives necessary for a productive career that contributes to science and society. He says he likes to give them the tools they need to succeed and to then watch them grow.
A former student of MacEachren said he sought a master’s degree to enter into the professional world, but MacEachren’s guidance gave him the confidence to pursue a doctorate and an academic path just weeks into the program.
“I ended the semester knowing I had the support of a world-renowned cartographer to pursue my doctorate and launch an academic career,” the former graduate student said. “I don’t know too many other graduate mentors who have a track record like this in encouraging these sorts of transformations.”
Colleagues said Prins is creative and skilled at helping students understand and think critically about competing perspectives on issues related to the individual and societal consequences of literacy, approaches to family literacy and the relationship between adult education and social justice. Colleagues said she’s also gifted at helping her students earn awards.
Prins, who has been a member of the faculty since 2005, said her teaching philosophy has been honed by research, self-reflection and teaching experiences. She’s taught English and Spanish in -- formal and nonformal settings, rural and urban, and in El Salvador and the United States.
Prins said her teaching is rooted in the belief that the purpose of education is not training, but rather, as American novelist Wendell Berry has stated, “to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible.”
“Guided by my belief that education is not neutral, my courses emphasize how adult education can promote human flourishing, particularly for people who experience social exclusion,” Prins said.
Prins, who is co-Director of the Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy and Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy, said her teaching is driven by a concern for equity. She wants to help students scrutinize how adult education policies and practices lessen or worsen disparities, and to consider their role in enhancing others’ capacity to exercise more control over their lives.
Students said Prins guided their research with care, offering extensive feedback to advance their work.
“Dr. Prins works closely with her advisees, both acknowledging our expertise and nurturing our research and curiosity,” a student said. “She is extraordinarily responsive both on campus and remotely. Her knowledge in the field and the way she applies it to our research is also useful. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with her during my doctoral studies.”
Another student said Prins treated the divergent disciplinary backgrounds of her students as a resource, and invited students to bring to the table their distinctive research interests, expertise and educational experiences during discussions and assignments. The student said Prins is a role model for how she hopes to become as an educator.
“My experiences as one of Dr. Prins’s students helped me realize the type of graduate faculty teacher I hope to become, one who is well-versed in course content and is who apt at making content come alive and matter to the students enrolled in my courses,” the student said.
“In styling my courses, I find myself drawing on the lessons I learned from Dr. Prins more than any other instructor I had,” a former student said. “I utilize many of the same strategies and focus intensively on structuring my courses in ways that ensure that students drive their own learning. This, I think, is the greatest compliment that I can give to any educator.”