COLLEGE STATION —
One of the first lessons students enrolled in Dr. Kevin Krisciunas‘s introductory astronomy course at Texas A&M University learn is to expect the unexpected. On any given day, for instance, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for the unconventional and extroverted instructor to show up to class dressed as a Renaissance-era minstrel and singing an eloquent opera dedicated to the stars.
As proof that the rest of the country is taking note of his innovative instructional efforts and unique perspectives on effective education delivery, Krisciunas has been honored with a 2010 Distinguished New Faculty Award at the 21st International Conference on College Teaching and Learning, held April 19-23 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Krisciunas, a lecturer in the Texas A&M Department of Physics and Astronomy and member of the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, is one of five college professors nationwide recently recognized with the award celebrating today’s most promising new educators. It was established in 2009 by the International Academy for the Scholarship of Learning Technology, an annual conference to encourage incorporation of new pedagogical techniques and creative ways of thinking in the classroom in order to better engage students.
Academy officials say the award is intended to honor new professors who have met these standards and to celebrate their current contributions to advancements in learning. Candidates must be nominated by their home institution and engaged in full-time teaching for no more than three years.
In addition to receiving a trophy at the conference, Krisciunas was invited to deliver a presentation, “Educating and Keeping the Attention of the YouTube Generation.”
“I teach basic astronomy,” Krisciunas explains. “On one level, it’s a science class, but on another level, it’s a psychology class. Students might show up with a negative perspective, because they may have had bad or boring high school teachers. My job is to dispel those preconceptions and show them that science is a creative process.”
An internationally recognized researcher and pioneer in the study of exploding stars, Krisciunas is the second Texas A&M faculty member to receive the international teaching award. Dr. Bryan P. Rasmussen, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was one of four inaugural recipients in 2009.
“One of the first things we did when we set out to establish the astronomy program was to try to attract Kevin Krisciunas to the program, and this award is further evidence of how lucky we were to bring him here,” says Dr. H. Joseph Newton, dean of the College of Science.
Though he has specialized in teaching Astronomy 101 since his arrival at Texas A&M in January 2007, Krisciunas has been teaching introductory astronomy courses for many years prior — long enough to have established his own unique style of teaching.
“My idea is that there are a few things in life that are inherently interesting — dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, things in the sky,” he notes. “These are all fascinating to a wide swath of people, even if they don’t want to get into the gory details of it.”
A great teacher, Krisciunas adds, can “think outside the books” by finding exciting ways to capture students’ attention and making the subject more appealing while being rigorous. Putting words into practice, Krisciunas employs a wide range of tactics to keep his astronomy course original. Whether it’s singing a galactic opera, lecturing in elaborate costume or assigning intriguing projects for students to work on both inside and outside of class, his goal is to eliminate the pressures often associated with college classes and to make learning in his astronomy course an experience unlike any other.
“He is an outstanding lecturer with a unique teaching style,” says Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Texas A&M Astronomy Program. “He has background in theater, and he is able to bring that with him to the classroom. It’s a special perspective that few other lecturers have, and we are very lucky to have him.”
Krisciunas is one of several prestigious faculty hires who have impacted the burgeoning astronomy program since its creation four years ago. When Suntzeff arrived in 2006 to spearhead the new program, he says he made it his priority to give Texas A&M Astronomy an identity of its own in international research and educational circles. Four years and seven acclaimed astronomers later, the program plays a prominent role in myriad research projects around the globe and features several relatively new or revamped courses, including introductory astronomy as a core science class that offers hands-on experience with telescopes and digital imaging of celestial objects.
Currently, about 1,800 undergraduates annually are enrolled in Texas A&M astronomy courses — a far cry from the few hundred just eight regular semesters ago and light years improved from past decades, when the few astronomy courses offered by the university were taught by physicists and even mathematicians who had limited background in astronomy. It’s an increase that Suntzeff says is directly correlated with having excellent faculty with the ability to cultivate students’ genuine innate interest in astronomy.
“We are trying to grow and expand astronomy,” he adds. “We feel that astronomy attracts students into the field of science. Some are there for course credit, and some are there because they just want to learn about astronomy. In either case, hiring great teachers is very important.”
Ever the industrious educator, Krisciunas encourages students — whatever their motivation or ultimate career goal — to consider taking an astronomy course for the most basic and inherently human of all reasons: sheer curiosity about the great unknown.
“I’m not out to try to make everyone astronomers,” he adds. “I just want them to learn that science is both challenging and fun.”
Find more on Krisciunas’ teaching and research.
Learn more about Texas A&M Astronomy.
Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or email@example.com, Dr. Kevin Krisciunas, (979) 845-7018 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, (979) 458-1786 or email@example.com
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