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Educators strive to push academia to the next level

| Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

Western Pennsylvania is home to renowned educators working to address hot topics in academia, including sustainability, technology and social consciousness.

It's also home to people who work behind the scenes to solve problems within the system, and others who dedicate their lives to teaching the basics in new and creative ways.

Here is a sampling of people who are driving forces in the academic arena:

• David Hassenzahl and Alice Julier, Chatham University

Titles: Hassenzahl is dean of Chatham's School of Sustainability and the Environment; Julier is director of Chatham's food studies program

Residence: Hassenzahl is from Pine; Julier is from Hampton

Noteworthy: Chatham University's School of Sustainability and the Environment aims to provide answers to world concerns. Its first academic program, Food Studies, enrolled a second cohort of students last fall. This year, it is offering classes leading to a Master of Sustainability and Certificate in Sustainable Management.

"Sustainability treats as equals the environment, economic development and social justice issues," said Hassenzahl, 44.

The food studies program, one of three such programs in the country, is on its second cohort, or 53 students, who learn about the cultural and political aspects of food. Although Julier has worked in the field for about two decades, she said the concept of food studies as an academic program grew in the past 10 years.

"It fits what's going on politically and culturally," said Julier, 49. "This is not a problem that will solve itself in the next 10 years."

• Rex Crawley

Title: Assistant dean of Robert Morris University's School of Communications and Information Systems; co-founder of the Black Male Leadership Development Institute and head of RMU's Council on Institutional Equity

Residence: Moon

Noteworthy: Crawley, 47, works to put black men on a path to educational success.

As co-founder of the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, a partnership with the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, Crawley guides college-bound students before they start classes.

"A lot of them are first-generation and don't have the skills to matriculate as successfully as the rest of the population," he said.

Crawley, recipient of the 2011 Racial Justice Award from the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, leads RMU's Council on Institutional Equity, which promotes inclusiveness and diversity on campus. The council helped establish the university's Office of Multicultural Programming and has recommended creating an Office of Diversity, which officials are considering.

• Lina Dostilio

Title: Director for academic community engagement at Duquesne University

Residence: Lawrenceville

Noteworthy: Dostilio, 33, helps the university establish relationships with Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The university's strategic plan calls for making students aware of "the problems of poverty, unjust structures and the degradation of the environment in their own society and around the world." Dostilio's job is to ensure that happens.

"It's all about preparing students to be significant civic contributors," she said.

Dostilio's programs involve more than 75 faculty members and more than 2,000 undergraduate students each year. She helped to nurture long-standing partnerships in the Hill District and Hazelwood. Duquesne students, faculty and staff tutor children or adults, or help run after-school exercise programs for children. They provide nursing care to residents of senior housing and music therapy in hospital settings. They help homeless veterans.

• Team of Mary Burke and Joseph Roberts, Carlow University

Title: Burke is director of the doctoral program in counseling psychology; Roberts is clinical coordinator of the Department of Psychology and Counseling

Residence: Burke is from Regent Square; Roberts is from of Squirrel Hill

Noteworthy: Burke, 41, and Roberts, 39, helped make Carlow's doctoral program in counseling psychology a success. It graduated its first eight students in December. The program enables students to gain skills that will halt systematic injustice and promote community change.

"The unique aspect is the focus on feminism and social justice though which students view the clinical experience," Burke said.

Late last year, the American Psychological Association awarded the program a seven-year accreditation, the highest possible. Roberts said students gain clinical experience in settings that include prisons, private practices and neuropyschology.

"The social justice aspect really fits well within the school and Carlow University," Burke said.

• Rush Miller

Title: University of Pittsburgh librarian

Residence: Bethel Park

Noteworthy: Since his arrival at the university in 1994, Miller, 64, has been creating the library of the future. He created the Digital Research Library, which transforms traditional print material into digital formats that people can access worldwide.

"We have a 21st-century student body that grew up using all kinds of information technology. They need a 21st-century library service," Miller said.

Miller promotes digital publishing. Through D-Scribe, the library system has published photos, manuscripts, maps, books, journal articles and more. He helped develop Pitt's E-Journal Publishing Program to make academic journals available to a global audience.

He was instrumental in establishing connections with academic facilities in China and increasing electronic access to research materials. The library works with 15 facilities in Asia to provide thousands of articles. This year, the Chinese American Librarians Association gave Miller the 2011 CALA Distinguished Service Award.

• George Blank

Title: Seventh-grade literary teacher at Franklin Regional Middle School

Residence: Penn Township

Noteworthy: For more than four decades, Blank, 63, has taught students to appreciate the written word. Sometimes, preparing people for the future means getting them excited about the basics, such as reading, he said.

"I try to get them to understand that even if it's something they don't like, it's still important to their lives," Blank said.

Being a man in a field dominated by women helps him relate to some of his most reluctant readers, he said.

"Most boys want to play football or computer games. A lot don't like to read. But they're not going to get through life without that," he said.

Blank is known as an advocate for the district's philosophy of second-chance learning.

"I figure that in my classroom, I can present the material to them, but if they can't do it the first time around, I'll re-teach and re-test," he said. It's a shared responsibility, he said. "You have to learn, and I have to make sure you do it."

• Jonathan Cagan

Title: Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineering professor

Residence: Fox Chapel

Noteworthy: Cagan, 50, helps mechanical engineering students identify technologies and resulting products that could solve some of the world's most daunting problems, from better tele-medicines to providing access to clean water.

Last semester, 22 students enrolled in his new course, Grand Challenge: Technology Identification and Product Design. Their goal was to address challenges issued to engineers nationwide by the National Academy of Engineering in areas including energy, medicine and the environment that need attention to allow "society to exist the way it wants to," Cagan said.

Cagan said the class is about developing cutting-edge products that deliver emerging technologies in a new way. CMU students have worked with Alcoa, GlaxoSmithKline and Apple, among other companies. The 15-week course takes the students from clean sheet to finished product.

"It's phenomenally rewarding," Cagan said.

• Teresa DeFlitch

Title: Director of City as Our Campus at Winchester Thurston School

Residence: Forest Hills

Noteworthy: DeFlitch, 32, is the school's ambassador to the community, developing connections for experiential learning programs and partnerships.

The City as Our Campus program connects the school with cultural and educational resources surrounding its campus. The program combines classroom learning with real life experiences "beyond typical field trips," DeFlitch said. For example, first-grade students might study architecture by touring the city and talking about what it needs to meet human demands. By the time they're in high school, those students might build three-dimensional models of cityscapes.

The program focuses on urban problems, such as sustainability and poverty, incorporating lessons into elective classes such as Urban Research and Design, and into after-school programs in which students become mentors to peers in other districts.

"The school is so fearless in being forward-thinking," DeFlitch said.

• Karen Sandora

Title: Shady Side Academy Junior School computer teacher

Residence: Mt. Lebanon

Noteworthy: Whether Skyping with their peers or sharing video with students in Australia, students at Shady Side Academy Junior School learn to use technology in their everyday lives with the help of Sandora, 43.

Sandora uses everything from Glogster and VoiceThread to Edmodo and Wikis when teaching students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

"Most come (to school) comfortable using computers, but using them in an educational setting is a whole different ballgame," she said.

Under her tutelage, first-graders engage in an online communications project called "Kid Koala's Travel Adventures," in which they blog and share information about Pittsburgh with Australian students. Third-graders Skype with their peers at Jefferson Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon, sharing poetry verses, and with an elementary school in New Jersey. Fifth-graders learn the basics of digital photography then use a class Wiki to discuss what they are learning.

"I love it, because they get real world authentic skills we can all use," Sandora said.

• Harry Bauman

Title: Secondary curriculum and transformation coordinator for the McKeesport Area School District

Residence: Forest Hills

Noteworthy: Bauman, 54, and other district staff developed an in-house training method in which educators teach each other how to engage students in lessons.

A few years ago, Bauman realized that lecturing and "desks-in-a-row kind of stuff" is not necessarily the most effective approach. He and other staffers developed "peer instructional rounds," which involve groups of teachers and administrators observing classes to learn creative ways to increase class participation.

"Teachers want to grow, but it's a challenge. The easy thing to do is lecture for 45 minutes. With these strategies, students have to demonstrate engagement," Bauman said.

To encourage interaction, students sit in groups, not rows. They're often free to move about the classroom when working. Teachers can call on students at random to find out what they're learning. More than 100 teachers have participated in the voluntary program, now in its second year, Bauman said.

"It's been really successful," he said. The program started at the middle school and will become district-wide. "We're getting a lot of bang for this."

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