Hoekstra and Charbonneau Win Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching

Biology professor Hopi E. Hoekstra and astronomy professor David Charbonneau have been selected as the first-ever recipients of the Fannie Cox Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching, an award that recognizes teachers who inspire students in introductory-level science courses.

The prize, which consists of a $10,000 personal award and $40,000 of research support, was endowed this past summer by a donation from Harvard alumnus Gardner Hendrie ’54.

A committee of senior faculty members from various scientific fields, headed by biology professor Richard M. Losick, collectively decided on the awardees.

“We collectively circulated names, and Hopi and David just surfaced,” Losick said.

Both Hoekstra, who teaches Organismic and Evolutionary Biology 53: “Evolutionary Biology,” and Charbonneau, who teaches Astronomy 16: “Stellar and Planetary Astronomy,” received Q guide ratings above 4.5 when they last taught their classes.

“I start off every lecture by asking a question to get the class interested,” said Charbonneau, who, as a child, would feed his curiosity by traveling out of his home city with a star map.

Hoesktra, who used to collect owl pellets and construct mouse skeletons as a kid, agreed with the power of curiosity and active involvement. “Enthusiasm and passion for science are contagious,” she said.

Confirming her statement, Hoekstra’s OEB 53 has seen enrollment grow from 34 students in 2008 to 86 in 2011.

“It’s impossible not to become excited about science when you hear her squeal with glee—quite literally—upon turning to a page in the mammalogy textbook with a picture of some adorable rodent,” said former OEB 53 student Joshua H. St. Louis ’09.

Charbonneau has been similarly credited for popularizing the Astrophysics concentration. Only three students took Astronomy 16 in the year before he began teaching in 2008, and that number grew to 63 students in 2010.

Despite being a leading scientist in the study of exoplanets, Charbonneau stressed the importance of balancing his teaching duties with his research.

“I know that my responsibility is to teach and mentor students,” he said.

Hoekstra, too, describes her greatest challenge as the task of allocating equal time and effort to working with students and working in her lab.

At an institution where professors are often criticized for being inaccessible, Hoekstra and Charbonneau also make a point of getting to know their students personally.

“I love the faculty-student dinners,” Hoekstra said. “Last year, a couple of dinners overlapped and I couldn’t go to all of them ... That was really sad!”

Similarly, Charbonneau said he has kept in contact with many of the students from his first Astronomy 16 class in 2008, most of whom are now seniors.

“It’s a delight to see what they have achieved,” he said.

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