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Public Affairs


Exhibiting excellence in undergraduate teaching

December 17, 2003

Judging by the letters written by students to support their nominations, Clifford Berkman, Vivian Chavez and Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes know how to reach undergraduates.

The three faculty members were SFSU's 2003 nominees for the highly competitive Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching awards.

Last month the foundation honored four outstanding undergraduate educators from colleges and universities across the United States along with one faculty member from each state. While SFSU's nominees didn't win this year, they are no less deserving of recognition.

The Academic Senate and the Office of Undergraduate Studies selected the three to represent the University from nominations by department chairs and college deans.

Photo of Clifford BerkmanClifford Berkman, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry

The consistent message from Berkman's undergraduate students was that he makes the dreaded organic chemistry class -- a key prerequisite course for most science students and a major stumbling block for many -- fun and comprehensible.

"The theories involving (organic chemistry) are often difficult to express, and instructors are not often successful in illustrating theories through example," said Azar Dastgah, a former undergraduate who now works as a research associate at Gilead Sciences Inc. "Dr. Berkman is the exception to this rule. For example, to make one idea of chemistry less abstract he removed his shoes and used them as a visual aid. (His) illustrations were not only humorous but they were also very effective in keeping the interest of the class and showing whatever idea he was trying to express at the time."

Berkman is also active in helping students plot post-bachelor's degree courses and supporting them as they progress along their chosen career paths. He provides research opportunities in his lab, opportunities to co-publish or present research results, career advice and letters of recommendation.

Most importantly, Berkman tries to help students find their strengths and interests. While some former students have gone on to study at top graduate programs in chemistry, other alumni include research scientists, a pharmacist and a forensic biologist.

"To have taken the time to direct an average of nine students (in lab research) in an academic year for which no teaching reimbursement is provided, is truly the act of a dedicated and devoted teacher," said James Orenberg, chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. "The mere fact that so many students have chosen to be guided by Dr. Berkman is a testament to his effectiveness as a teacher and mentor."

Berkman, who joined SFSU in 1996, holds a doctorate in chemistry from Loyola University of Chicago.

Photo of Vivian ChavezVivian Chavez, associate professor of health education

Building a healthy community is what drives Vivian Chavez's work with undergraduate students. Chavez spent a decade organizing violence prevention programs before attending graduate school. The combination of academic training and real-life experience enriches her teaching and helps establish credibility with her students -- most who hope to become community health educators.

Chavez has built a community service learning component into most of her courses. For example, students in her community organizing class complete a project where they profile a community by interviewing and interacting with its members. Later they generate an action project that helps improve the health of the chosen community.

"(The community profile) project was one of the most memorable and rewarding of my undergraduate career," health education student Nazneen Abdulla said. "It allowed me to explore a setting that sparked my interest and utilize valuable skills that I had attained from the course."

Chavez stresses the importance of truly listening to others -- fellow students as well as members of the community -- and using varied methods of fostering learning and debate.

"Her ability to use multiple teaching strategies and materials; e.g. storytelling, videos, docudrama, are reported by students as crucial to their engagement in the classroom," said Zoe Clayson, associate professor of health education. "Dr. Chavez has always challenged her students to 'think upstream' and focus on primary prevention in their intellectual studies and future work in community health."

Chavez, who joined SFSU in 2000, holds a doctorate in public health from the University of California.

Photo of Raquel Rivera PinderhughesRaquel Rivera Pinderhughes, professor of urban studies

While it is only one part of her work with undergraduates, Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes' involvement with the SFSU/Delancey Street College Program typifies her commitment to changing lives through innovative education. The program provides residents of Delancey Street, a nationally renowned empowerment and re-education program for ex-convicts and recovering substance abusers, the opportunity to work toward an urban studies degree.

Rivera Pinderhughes directs the program, recruiting volunteer faculty and teaching many classes herself. Because of the unique circumstances of the students, she tailors the course work to individual student interests and helps them see how academic skills can be relevant to their lives.

The Delancey Street students appreciate her dedication.

"After a full semester of preparation (for a formal presentation on environmental sustainability), the presentations went on until almost midnight, at which time Professor Pinderhughes asked us to remain seated for just a few more minutes," writes a cohort of Delancey Street students. "It was with great pride that we listened as she praised our performances, reinforcing everything we had learned here at Delancey Street -- that nothing is impossible and each person has talent far beyond his own expectations. What an exhilarating moment!"

Such feelings are shared by other students who enroll in her urban studies courses.

"The projects Raquel assigns are both practical and arduous -- demanding the utmost in research and detail, while requiring that each be applicable to our daily lives," undergraduate Sebastian Africano said. "She entices students to learn more … to investigate every possibility. She is the most dedicated, hard-working, impassioned and inspiring teacher I have ever had."

Rivera Pinderhughes, who joined SFSU in 1992, holds a doctorate in urban sociology from the Graduate Center of New York.

-- William Morris


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Last modified December 17, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs