There are teachers who merely teach, and then there are teachers who change lives.

Meet the latter.

Six West Virginia University faculty members have been named recipients of the 2012 WVU Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching.

This year’s cohort of honorees teach diverse subjects, but they all share a common goal: Delivering a high-quality education to WVU students to last a lifetime.

Each honoree will be recognized during the University’s Week of Honors (April 13-22).

The Foundation has been giving out the awards since 1985. For a list of recipients over the years, click here.

The 2012 honorees are:

Brian Ballentine

Brian Ballentine

—Ph.D., English, Case Western Reserve University, 2006.

—Assistant professor and professional writing and editing coordinator, WVU Professional Writing and Editing program, 2007-present.

—“Empower students as both critical consumers and producers of texts.”

A decade ago, Brian Ballentine was a software engineer and technical writer. He had a well-paying job where he learned the importance of collaboration and good writing.

“My career as a software engineer and technical writer was extremely rewarding and that experience still informs my teaching today,” Ballentine said. “However, that career didn’t allow me to teach, design curriculum, or otherwise share in a classroom what I was learning as a practitioner.”

He wanted to understand the theories behind what he was doing, and he wanted to teach it. Enough so that he went back to school to get a doctorate.

In his five years at WVU, Ballentine has become a major force in the Professional Writing and Editing program. Because of the depth and breadth of his instruction, graduates of the program have pursued their passion, some going on to top graduate programs around the country and others finding rewarding careers in writing and editing.

His coworkers point to his innovative research that stimulates students – he’s currently leading an FBI-sponsored study that is collecting handwriting samples for a biometric database.

Students give him high ratings and appreciate what they can do with the education he gives them.

Brian Coyle, a former graduate student who worked with Ballentine, said his mentor is skilled at connecting academia with the ‘real world’ experiences students will face.

“Dr. Ballentine should be considered a model of a serious scholar who can thoughtfully engage with the world at large, and a spokesman for the sort of work that will continue to keep the liberal arts ‘relevant’ in the future,” Coyle said.

Ken Blemings

Kenneth P. Blemings

—Ph.D., nutritional sciences, University of Wisconsin, 1994

—Professor of nutritional biochemistry, genetics and developmental biology, WVU Division of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, 1999-present.

—“I enjoy helping young people reach their career aspirations. It is an opportunity to influence society.”

Kenneth P. Blemings is a mastermind at memorizing.

Blemings, a professor of nutritional biochemistry in the Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is well-known for his ability to learn about 150 different names each semester for his AGBI 410 class.

“He deals impartially with students, provides honest feedback on performance, and suggests alternative practices for those who seek improvement,” said John Barnard, a medical student who earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at WVU. “The strategy that he employed gave me the skills to become a self-directed learner and highlighted the relevance of biochemistry to the working world.”

Blemings was also appointed to serve as the assistant director of the Division of Animal and Nutritional Sciences’ academic programs in 2010. He also teaches mini-college lectures to Honors/AP biology and chemistry classes across the state to try to recruit students to WVU.

Blemings uses group homework assignments to allow students to learn such difficult material together. By using a tandem of group assignments and presentations, he was also able to improve the AGBI 410 drop/fail rate by 50 percent. His overall attitude stands out most to his students and it helps him persuade student interaction in lectures and motivates them to be enthusiastic in lab classes and field trips.

“My most effective teaching tools are the connections I have with my students, my sense of humor, and the high expectations that I effectively communicate to the students,” Blemings said. “I enjoy helping young people reach their career aspirations. It is an opportunity to influence society.”

Gina Martino Dahlia

Gina Martino Dahlia

—Master’s degree, journalism, WVU, 2007.

—Teaching assistant professor, television journalism program chair, WVU Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, 2008-present; broadcast news sequence chair/senior lecturer, 2004-2008; adjunct professor, 2001-2004.

—“I teach with an iron fist?and a warm heart.”

Gina Martino Dahlia knew she was a teacher after watching a student’s TV story on the dangerous threat of anthrax in U.S. mail.

She saw how much her student had learned and how the quality of her work had improved. She saw how her own belief, passion and refusal to accept mediocrity put students on paths that improved their lives.

Her former students now work at television stations across the country – often with the help of her persuasive reference letters – and when they decide that’s not where life is taking them, she’s just as supportive.

Known as an exceedingly assertive and demanding professor who will push her students to create the best work they can, Dahlia is also beloved by students for the time she invests in their TV productions and for her accessibility.

“They know they can call or text me any time of the day or night with interview questions, camera help in the field or editing support in the newsroom,” said Dahlia, an teaching assistant professor in the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism.

One of her main roles is as executive producer of WVU News, an award-winning program filmed by WVU students that airs on PBS and cable TV in West Virginia.

Dahlia is familiar with working through challenges. She’s from a family of coal miners and factory workers and paid her way through college and graduate school at WVU. So she knows why she has to push them.

Kevin Kinkead remembers what it was like editing with Dahlia, or more likely having to make major revisions or starting over after she got a look at his work.

The two “butted heads,” he said. She used tough love and wouldn’t take “baloney.” But he learned how to report and produce because she was tough. Five years later, he’s a producer for CBS in Philadelphia.

“I learned how to do all of this in Professor Dahlia’s classes,” he said.

James Lewis

James W. Lewis

—Ph.D., neurobiology, California Institute of Technology, 1997.

—Assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology, WVU Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center School of Medicine, 2004-present.

—“I try to teach in a manner that conveys my enthusiasm for research.”
When James W. Lewis went to college, he had his share of what he considered fantastic and awful professors. By paying attention to those tactics, he’s been able to become a better professor himself.

“I was taught by numerous past advisors, professors and educators, and I, in turn, now try to teach in a manner that conveys my enthusiasm for research to keep the process going,” said Lewis, an assistant professor at the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at WVU’s Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center School of Medicine.

In addition to his time spent teaching neuroscience at WVU, he is also a mentor to students at Morgantown High School and teaches classes on brain function at local senior citizen centers and centers for the blind.

He says he tries to “meet students half way.” He learned that in larger, auditorium-style classes to adopt a theatrical style of teaching. He tried to adapt his teaching styles to help reach each generation. Now he uses multimedia presentations to leave a lasting impression.

Lewis hits his students with “knowledge hooks,” which are memorable facts or demonstrations during a lecture that will last a lifetime – something that students, after they graduate and go into the field, will be able to remember.

“Dr. Lewis set himself apart from all of the other instructors with his use of props, class participation, homemade videos and animated lecture slides,” said Rebecca Hebel, a senior nursing student. “Not only were the lectures fun and engaging, but I still remember the material, three years later.”

Mark Schraf

Mark Schraf

—Master’s degree, analytical chemistry, WVU, 1989.

—Teaching instructor, chemistry, WVU, 1999-present.

—“If you can do ‘pizza chemistry,’ you can do ‘chemistry chemistry.’”

Whether it’s balancing chemical equations or discussing the processes of ion charges, Mark Schraf admits that chemistry is not the easiest subject.

That’s why Schraf, a teaching instructor in WVU’s C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry, takes an informal approach to an intimidating subject. On most days, he’s decked out in the type of sports jersey that can be seen on students all over campus. A self-described “old school guy,” he finds his lessons are usually better conveyed through the medium of chalk and blackboard rather than high-tech gadgetry.

And those tough concepts that seem far removed from everyday life? Schraf has a way of tying them into the college experience.

“Chemistry can be so abstract,” Schraf said. “So I try to take sandwiches, pizza – anything students are familiar with – and use them as teaching tools. If you can do ‘pizza chemistry,’ you can do ‘chemistry chemistry.’”

Schraf’s route to teaching was an unlikely one. He spent a few years as a lab chemist before leaving the profession to try his hand at sports writing. When Schraf moved back to Morgantown in 1997, Ron Smart, one of his former professors, asked him to help teach a freshman class.

“I would do anything that man asked me to do,” Schraf said of Smart. “I thought I’d give it a try and see what happened. Thirteen years later, I’m still here and I’ve won a couple of teaching awards. It’s been amazing.”

Schraf’s students seem to agree with his methods. Former student Joe Melia, now a chemistry teacher at Morgantown High, was inspired by Schraf’s humor and his enthusiasm.

“I had over 15 science professors throughout my post-secondary education but none could match the delivery of the material like Professor Schraf,” Melia said. “The combination of knowing the curriculum extremely well with attention-grabbing delivery is what he gives in his lectures and what inspires me in my classroom.”

Kate Staples

Kate Staples

—Ph.D., history, University of Minnesota, 2006.

—Assistant professor, history, WVU, 2006-present.

—“I try to show them the foundational value of inquiry.”

Although she teaches about the past, keeping pace with technology and the latest scholarship have helped Kate Staples relate to her students.

Rather than focus on dates and events, Staples, an assistant professor of history, relays information through YouTube clips, news articles and even song lyrics to stimulate conversation and ideas.

The goal is to assemble viewpoints that construct a picture of the past, Staples says, and once the information is absorbed, the students become a part of that conversation through analyzing sources and asking questions. To stimulate discussion, Staples has incorporated role playing and group debate into her classroom.

“I try to show them the foundational value of inquiry,” Staples said. “Asking questions and entertaining ideas you might not otherwise entertain – that was the purpose behind the creation of the first universities in the Middle Ages.”

By encouraging critical thinking, Staples is teaching skills that extend beyond the classroom and beyond the college experience.

“A particularly memorable example of Dr. Staples’ engaging teaching style was her dramatization of the fall of Richard III during the War of the Roses,” Chad Wilcox, a former student, wrote. “Many teachers may have been content with a multiple choice question of Richard’s treatment of the young princes, she would not let us dismiss such a significant part of English history. She split the class into small groups and assigned us the daunting task of defending or condemning the last Plantagenet king in a mock adversarial court. In this way, she showed us that the interpretation of events by historians was just as crucial to the making of history as the events themselves.”



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