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Faculty members, staff, teaching assistants honored with Campus Awards for Excellence in Instruction

Statue of Alma Mater with Learning, and Labor in front of yellow and white spring blooming trees.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign leads the world in teaching, research, and public engagement. We could not accomplish this without exceptional faculty members, staff members, and graduate teaching assistants.

This spring, we honored some of our finest instructors for excellence in teaching, mentoring, and advising. These outstanding individuals were awarded what is collectively known as the Campus Awards for Excellence in Instruction.

Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring

Jie Chen

Jie Chen, cell and developmental biology, and Stephen Longplant biology and crop sciences, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring which is co-sponsored by the Graduate College. This award recognizes faculty members for their sustained excellence in graduate student mentoring, innovative approaches to graduate advising, and their impact on graduate student scholarship and professional development. 

Chen pushes students to think critically while also teaching them to effectively design and execute experiments. Chen's motto that the health and sanity of her students is paramount is a testament to her commitment as a kind and considerate mentor. A successful female scientist and a parent, she has been instrumental in helping young men and women balance their professional and personal lives.

Stephen LongLong has an extraordinary record of mentoring a diverse group of graduate students. His group’s field research often involves long days combining strenuous physical effort with high-level intellectual engagement from in silico design, laboratory realization of the design and field testing. When you sit in the audience for a research presentation from Long or one of his team, however, you see photographs of grimy but shining smiles at the end of each day. And Long may be out there working with the team, even for data collection that starts before dawn.


Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Teaching

Tania IoninTania Ionin, linguistics, and Scott Weisbenner, finance, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Teaching. Recipients of this award are honored for sustained excellence and innovation in graduate or professional teaching and their contributions to graduate or professional learning beyond classroom instruction.

Ionin has developed a distinctive style as an approachable and stimulating expert who connects with students through solid and effective guidance. In Ionin’s graduate courses, students read primary research literature, learn about research methods and produce their own original research – with many class projects eventually growing into presentations at international conferences. This speaks to the level of sophistication that Ionin’s students achieve in understanding core research questions and methods in second language acquisition and experimental linguistics, and also to an ability to nurture independent scholars.

Scott WeisbennerWeisbenner approaches teaching as a process of continual, incremental improvement, and encourages students to be active participants in their own learning. This strategy of ongoing innovation requires deep reflection on core learning objectives, sensitivity to what students require at different stages of their education, and awareness of what works to achieve these objectives. Weisbenner’s success is a measure of his ability as a scholar to distill cutting-edge research findings to interpret current events and topical issues.


Campus Award for Excellence in Online and Distance Teaching

John C. HartExecutive Associate Dean of the Graduate CollegeJohn C. Hart, computer science, received the Campus Award for Excellence in Online and Distance Teaching. This award honors excellence and innovation in online or distance teaching; contributions to student learning through innovative uses of technology; creativity in course development and instruction; and for having a positive influence on the quality, extent and development of a department’s online/distance program.

Hart made an indelible mark on the development of a professional workforce in computer and data science by conceptualizing, designing and implementing the widely successful online Master of Computer Science in Data Science degree track, which has since expanded to enroll students in a more general Master of Computer Science degree. Now in its fifth year, the program currently enrolls over 1,200 students and is the second-largest graduate degree offering on campus.


Teaching assistants honored with the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching:

Leah BeckertLeah Becker, English, relies on a conversational approach to create a truly open, collaborative classroom. Her creative assignments help students find a way to connect. In addition to providing an inclusive learning environment for English majors, she inspires students firmly rooted in other disciplines to engage with the humanities. Many of her students wrote about the care she showed for them in times of need, her awareness of the problems they were facing and her follow-through when it came to providing support.

Ander Beristain MurilloAnder Beristain Murillo, Spanish and Portuguese, creates a classroom environment that is enriching for the students. His teaching shows engagement with the needs of undergraduate students, both academically and as individuals. By focusing his teaching on collaboration with and between his students, he encourages students to learn from each other. Beristain Murillo does this by ensuring that his students develop socio-linguistic awareness and he prompts them to examine not only their own language practices, but the language practices of their classmates.

Emily BlevinsEmily Blevins, psychology, has taught a variety of courses including traditional lectures, discussion-based advanced seminars and an interactive project-based course. Across course sizes and settings, Emily aims to build a classroom environment where students know one another and are known by their instructor. She incorporates student input to create lesson plans that are both supportive and challenging. To promote inclusivity in her teaching, Emily models an appreciation for students’ lived experiences and helps students build skills in authentic, respectful dialogue.

Karie Brown TessKarie Brown-Tess, curriculum and instruction, uses a variety of group-based learning approaches. Her students find that learning is not about collecting information, but about growing as a person. Students create documentaries, children’s books, podcasts and other ways of educating people about social justice-related issues. Authors from the community supported students in developing mixed-media with specific text to reach a layered audience. Her network in the local community creates an environment where students feel they are making a broader impact.

Jone Vicente UrrutiaJone Vicente Urrutia, Spanish and Portuguese, approaches teaching as a chance to have great fun, and her students are quick to join her, learning along the way. Her approach has been especially effective in creating an inclusive and transformative learning environment. Vicente Urrutia’s teaching philosophy and activities consistently emphasize diverse perspectives and sources of information. By drawing connections between knowledge from Spanish- and Basque-speaking communities, she encourages students to be more intellectually curious and discover what they can learn by fostering intercultural competence.

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Story by Steve Witmer, News Bureau Director, repost from May 4, 2021, Illinois News Bureau article.