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Robert Lyons

By Stewart McInnis

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 28 - April 18, 1996

Hands-on teaching is what students want and that is what Robert E. Lyons gives them. His courses give students a chance to haul mulch, prune plants, and do all the work necessary to tend the horticulture gardens.

The ability to provide a memorable learning experience and his commitment to students are among the reasons the professor of horticulture was chosen to receive one of this year's W.E. Wine Awards. Only three of the university's approximately 1,500 faculty members are recognized each year for outstanding teaching.

"Dr. Lyons genuinely cares about the students, and it is evident in his classroom," said graduate student Sharon Dendy. "He challenges them to not only think, but to be able to convey those thoughts on paper.... His guidance and support have helped me to reach a little deeper and to make choices that I might not have otherwise considered."

End-of-course comments from students praise the practical experience they gained during his classes, his lively teaching style, and the myriad of photographs he uses to help them visualize the concepts he teaches. He received praise from former students for the lasting impact he had on their careers, as well as praise from colleagues on his teaching skills.

"I try to include students in just about everything I do here at Virginia Tech," said Lyons. "We just couldn't do what we do without student involvement. Besides, it gives them the hands-on experience for which they are always clamoring."

Lyons uses new technologies in his classroom instruction. He is collaborating with colleagues at Ohio State University in developing a database containing photographs of plants. The photos are available on the Internet, allowing students to access them at times convenient to them.

And photos are a big part of Lyons' instruction. He is an accomplished photographer, having his photos published professionally as well as using them to document his work. He was the text and photography consultant for three Time-Life books, and he was consultant and primary photographer for a recently released CD-ROM guide to perennials and annuals.

"A great deal of what I teach is visual," Lyons said. "Using photography has really added to my classes. I've found it's been enormously successful."

Lyons, who joined Virginia Tech in 1981, is the first member of the horticulture faculty to receive the prestigious Wine Award. He helped develop and is now director of the Virginia Tech Horticulture Gardens.

He earned his bachelor's degree in biological sciences at Rutgers College of Rutgers University. He earned his master's degree and his Ph.D. in horticulture from the University of Minnesota.

Philip Mellen

By Sookhan Ho

His students say he is "very funny," "a little eccentric, but can teach well." Student evaluations about Philip Mellen, or "Herr Mellen," as they call him, portray a dedicated and outstanding teacher who makes learning German "challenging, but fun."

"This was a class that I hated to miss," one student said of Mellen's German 3105 class: Grammar, Composition, and Conversation. "We were always doing something that was important and new," said another.

"It isn't hard to speak German in front of a group any more. Herr Mellen made the class more entertaining than most of my classes."

"I only wish we could have done even more in these areas: more writing assignments, written grammar homework for credit, and oral speaking group projects."

The 1996 Wine Award winner, who joined the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in 1980, is also lauded by his colleagues. His department has nominated him for the Wine Award four times over the past four years. In a support letter, department head Chris Eustis wrote that "during nearly his entire career at Virginia Tech, Dr. Mellen has been the cornerstone of the German Section."

Physics professor Dale Long sat in on one of Mellen's classes a couple of years ago while preparing to serve as Mellen's advocate before the university Wine Award Committee.

He was very impressed, Long recalled, with the 10 minutes of conversation in German at the beginning of class--a one-on-one personal chat with each student. The students were clearly comfortable with this activity, and each "seemed to enjoy his or her chat and the reaction of the rest of the class."

Mellen, he noted, "has an outstanding talent for getting the students to respond to questions without making them feel uncomfortable or put on the spot. There was give and take between instructor and student throughout the class."

Mellen has received three university certificates of teaching excellence. His devotion to his students is also evident in the number of different advising responsibilities he has assumed, said Andrew Becker, chair of the department's scholarship and honors committee. Mellen is the academic advisor to 16 German majors and minors and to 13 students majoring in international studies. He is coordinator of the department's German Section and the section's advisor for the university's International Student Exchange Program and for summer study-abroad programs.

His contributions to course development include the introduction of an oral practice course into the German program, the development of a course on German Culture and Civilization, and more recently, the creation of an 18-hour European Area Studies concentration for the Liberal Arts and Sciences major.

Kusum Singh

By Sandy Broughton

Teaching and research are often perceived as opposing endeavors in academia, yet each year Virginia Tech produces examples of faculty members who disprove the supposed dichotomy. This year, as recipient of the Wine Award for Teaching Excellence, Kusum Singh, assistant professor of educational research in the College of Education, joins the ranks of those faculty members noted for both teaching and research accomplishments.

Whether she is teaching advanced statistics, measurement theory, or research methodology, students say Singh is able to allay their "math anxiety" and relate her enthusiasm for the subject matter. "She loves her subject matter and she wants us to love it, but she also understands what it is like to have to work to grasp it. Some professors forget what it is like to struggle with a subject. She hasn't," said one student. "She reads her audience to make sure that when we walk away from the class, we understand the material."

Last fall, Singh received the National Science Foundation's prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, given to encourage academic faculty members as both educators and researchers. Singh's CAREER award is the first at Tech made to a faculty member outside the "hard sciences." She will conduct a study of the family, student, and school factors affecting mathematics and science achievement in secondary schools.

Singh came to Virginia Tech in 1986 as associate director of the Governor's School for the Gifted Program. She became a research associate in the College of Education the following year, and joined the faculty in 1989. She is a graduate of the Agra University in India, where she earned degrees in psychology and English. She received her doctorate in educational research and evaluation from Virginia Tech. She has published and presented papers on the effect of part-time work on high-school grades, the effect of parental involvement on middle-school student achievement, and the effect of financial aid on college enrollment decisions. She has also researched vocational program enrollment and evaluation, and school-business partnerships. She teaches statistics and research methods courses required for all College of Education graduate students and frequently taken by social-science students in other Tech colleges. Last spring she received a Certificate of Teaching Excellence.

Since the College of Education's founding in 1971, Education faculty members have received 11 Wine Awards, the most of any of Tech's nine colleges during that 25-year period. "Our track record of collecting Wine awards attests not only to the subject expertise of our faculty, but also to innovative and effective classroom execution," said interim Dean Wayne Worner.