Dedication, warmth, and the answers — prize-winning teachers have it all

The winners of this year’s Yale College teaching prizes are Carolyn Roberts, Simon Mochrie, Erik Harms, Beth Anne Bennett, Pat Devlin, and Stephen Stearns ’67.
Beth Anne Bennett, Pat Devlin, Erik Harms, Stephen Stearns ’67, Carolyn Roberts, Simon Mochrie

Clockwise from top left: Beth Anne Bennett, Pat Devlin, Erik Harms, Stephen Stearns ’67, Carolyn Roberts, Simon Mochrie

In their nominations for this year’s Yale College Teaching Prizes, undergraduate students praised the honored faculty members for not only shining in the classroom but also for having a meaningful impact in their lives beyond it.

The winners of this year’s Yale College teaching prizes, all in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, are Carolyn Roberts — the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize for teaching excellence in the humanities; Simon Mochrie — the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize for teaching excellence in the natural sciences; Erik Harms — the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize for teaching excellence in the social sciences; Beth Anne Bennett and Pat Devlin — the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize for teaching excellence by non-ladder faculty; and Stephen Stearns ’67 — the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize, for a faculty member who “over a long period of service has inspired a great number of students and consistently fostered the learning process both inside and outside the classroom.”

Yale College Marvin Chun typically hosts a reception in honor of all prize recipients, together with their students. Although the gathering is postponed until participants are able to celebrate in person, Chun said, “This year's prize winners are extraordinary instructors, who, with imagination, resourcefulness, and dedication, have inspired their students and instilled in them a love of learning.”

The full citations for the award-winning faculty members follow.

Carolyn Roberts — the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize

Carolyn Roberts, assistant professor of history of science & history of medicine and African American studies, your students have praised your ability to make lectures feel like a community, where you know their faces and names in a lecture hall full of hundreds of students. In your seminar courses, you are able to bring together students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds into a ‘cohesive whole made stronger’ by that diversity.

You are known for your accessibility in countless office hours and in your responsiveness to student queries. As a professor who discusses difficult material in your courses, you are able to instill this knowledge to your students compassionately and respectfully. You also inspire your students to share their knowledge, expanding the reach of your classroom with your students serving as ‘empowered and effective allies’ as they engage in conversation about these topics outside of your classroom. One student said, ‘Professor Roberts has also indirectly taught my mother, father, sister, cousins, aunt, grandmother, and friends. Because the material is so important and well-delivered, it triggers a strong desire (and responsibility) to share.’

Coming back to ‘community’ in your classroom, students repeatedly bring up your positivity, warmth and mindfulness. One student said, ‘Even while she instilled in us the importance of academic rigor and the urgency of our academics to confronting the violences of today, she infused a tenderness, empathy, and humor into the class that felt balanced.’ Another stated, ‘She is truly one in a million, and I am so thankful that she showed me how positive, loving, thoughtful, joyful, and caring a classroom space could be.’

For your engagement with students and devotion to teaching, Yale College proudly awards the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss ’75 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities to you, Professor Carolyn Roberts.”

Beth Anne Bennett — the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize

Beth Anne Bennett, lecturer in mechanical engineering and materials science, your students repeatedly emphasize the clarity you bring to your courses — your lectures and materials are clear, you answer questions clearly, and your expectations are high, but clear. 

One student said, ‘Not only is her lecturing clear; it is engaging with the material — coming at it from a deep, fundamental understanding and building up the concepts from there. Problem sets are well-thought out and consistently complemented the material learned in class.’ Another said, ‘Taking courses is like walking forest paths, and having Dr. Bennett as an instructor is like being handed a GPS and a map. Through her superb teaching, the trees never block the view of the forest.’

Your students speak of your ability to make your courses accessible, embracing the difficulty of the material rather than shying away from it and providing a space where students can comfortably make mistakes. Students appreciate the time you give them outside of the classroom, emphasizing that your door is always open (be it to your Zoom room or your actual office) and that you greet them with a smile, eager to answer their questions.

A student shared ‘She generally manages to answer any possible questions one might have before you can even ask, and when you do have a question, she gives a clear answer.’

Yale College is thus honored to award the Richard H. Brodhead ‘68 Prize for Teaching Excellence to you, Beth Anne Bennett.”

Pat Devlin — the Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Prize

Pat Devlin, lecturer in Mathematics, you are known for your inclusivity and approachability, which you exhibit in your classes, but also notably in other spaces. Your students tackle problem sets with your support in the Math Lounge, which you helped make accessible to students, and you are incredibly generous with your time. 

Your positivity is infectious and empowers your students to believe they can master the difficult material you teach. One student shared, ‘I never expected to have such an approachable and friendly professor in college, and his excitement to see us grow and learn is palpable.’ Another said, ‘He is everything a teacher must be: smart, kind, responsive, dedicated, engaging, elucidating, open, and dedicated (yes, I’m putting that twice).’

You have inspired a community of students who aspire to be mathematicians, and you have inspired them in unique ways! You have incentivized the Putnam exam, dying your hair pink and then green when 100+ students signed up to take the exam. The Putnam Seminar you teach has provided yet another space for students to learn and mingle and your deliberate emphasis on diversity and inclusivity empowers your students. Your efforts have brought a tangible cohesiveness and strength to the math community at Yale over the past few years.

A student shared that you highlight the ‘unsung heroes of mathematics who are racial or gender minorities, encouraging people of all backgrounds to participate in the discipline’ and that you inspire ‘an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics, something that can be lost in the memorization of algorithms.’

Yale College is thus honored to award the Richard H. Brodhead ‘68 Prize for Teaching Excellence to you, Pat Devlin.”

Simon Mochrie — the Dylan Hixon ’88 Prize

Simon Mochrie, professor of physics and of applied physics, your students praise your ability to foster collaboration among peers and your tireless support of their learning, particularly in your legendary late night ‘study halls.’ One student shared that you ‘created an environment that taught the type of collaboration that’s useful in actual scientific research but (that is) almost never taught to undergraduates.’

The physics curriculum you developed over the past few years is ‘much more than just random equations found in an obscure physics textbook.’ Application-based learning keeps your students engaged in the material and helps them apply their knowledge to other STEM courses, particularly those in the biological sciences. As one student shared: ‘What are the physics of blushing? How does an actin filament add monomers to its tip? He teaches us the beauty of physics, itself.’

Parallel to the content is the interactive nature of your courses and the structures in place — study halls, peer tutors, along with your consistent presence. Your students marvel at the care you take to learn not just their names but who they are as people. Fostering collaboration in a large lecture course is challenging, and you are skillful in this regard. Students share that ‘the biggest takeaways were how to work with other people, ask for help, and think as a physicist’ and that you teach them how ‘to work with peers, to be curious, and to be resilient.’

For your creativity, your ability to cultivate teamwork and your genuine care for your students, Yale College is delighted to bestow the Dylan Hixon ‘88 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Natural Sciences on you, Professor Simon Mochrie.”

Erik Harms — the Lex Hixon ’63 Prize

Erik Harms, associate professor of anthropology, your students speak highly of your compassion and support of their learning, where students come ‘prepared and excited’ for each class session. They appreciate the trust you have in them to engage in the readings and course material without the need for busywork, and the supportive environment you create in the classroom. One student said, ‘While his expertise and mastery of this material is abundantly clear, he establishes such a comfortable, caring atmosphere in the classroom that it feels very easy to participate, and he always makes sure to validate your points and make you feel heard and appreciated.’ You understand that your students have different learning styles and you have been able to utilize this knowledge to help shape your classroom environment in a positive and constructive way in each of your courses. Another student shared that you foster ‘such an encouraging atmosphere in (your) classroom, it is so rare to not have everyone speak at least once.’

The time and care you take to provide feedback to your students, both in conversation and with ‘thorough and thoughtful’ written comments on paper drafts helps them with the content of your courses, but more importantly supports and fosters growth in their critical thinking and writing skills. You see your students as scholars, and they feel your support of their learning. One student mentioned that you were ‘also invested in students’ growth outside of our course, letting us know about seminars from the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale that we could attend and about scholarships if we wanted to conduct research in Vietnam.’ Another said, ‘Prof. Harms makes seemingly dense course materials and concepts digestible and relevant to our lives as Yale students.’

Your care for your students is genuine and their excitement for your courses is contagious. Yale College is proud to award the Lex Hixon ‘63 Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Social Sciences to you, Professor Erik Harms.”

Stephen Stearns — the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize

Since joining Yale’s faculty in 2000, Stephen Stearns, YC’67, the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, you have taught hundreds of students who are thankful for your mentorship, approachability, enthusiasm, and supportive nature. You are truly a lifelong educator, constantly shifting and improving your craft.

Your students are dazzled by your courses, sharing that ‘He makes you feel as though you are tapping into the secret mechanisms of the universe’ and that you are ‘so incredibly good that when he teaches, it’s as if he’s not even there — rather it feels like your mind is tapped directly into a wellspring of knowledge.’

With an emphasis on synthesis and application of course material, rather than memorization, your students have appreciated your expectations of them. As one student shared, ‘He said that he wanted us to think carefully about the material, to really understand it and then apply it to do something useful with it. At that point in my life, I was an excellent regurgitator. It marked the beginning of my shift from mere consumer of knowledge to contributor.’

You have an ability to empower your students to engage in the method of their learning, putting them in the driver’s seat when approaching pedagogy. One student stated that ‘he eventually offered the class the choice of how to run each meeting, noting that it was our education and that he hoped and trusted that we would choose a classroom strategy that best suited our educational needs and goals. This was not a dismissal of personal responsibility; rather, it was an empowering and effective teaching tool that reaffirmed his commitment to our learning.’

Another shared that you are ‘in constant dialogue with his students, experimenting with and refining’ your teaching methods and helping them to develop their critical thinking and writing skills. Over many years, your students have been thankful for your availability before and after class and over meals in a nearby dining hall. Your teaching and mentorship leave a lasting impression, inspiring some to become professors themselves.

For your dedication to your students throughout your many years in our ecology and evolutionary biology department, Yale College is proud to award the 2018 Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize to you, Professor Steve Stearns.”

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