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Professor Penn receives 2015 Morse Alumni Award

Professor R. Lee Penn has received the 2015 Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education. This honor is awarded to exceptional candidates nominated in the quest to identify excellence in undergraduate education. In addition to honoring individual faculty members, the award contributes to the improvement of undergraduate education at the university by publicizing the honorees' work to serve as resources for the whole faculty.

Penn has been a professor and researcher in the Department of Chemistry since 2001. She has a passion for teaching at all levels, including outreach to K-12th grade teachers and students, to mentoring undergraduate students, and advising graduate students and post-doctorate researchers. She has taught a breadth of courses, ranging from general chemistry, freshman and honors courses, to upper level courses on materials characterization and green chemistry. She also shares her expertise on nanotechnology and passion for cycling in freshman and honors seminars.

She is innovative in her teaching methods. For example, Penn employed service learning in her nanotechnology honors seminar, Nano: Small Sciences Big Deal, which connected seminar students as mentors with high school students. The university’s seminar students planned and filmed a video that covered the basics of nanotechnology, which the high school students watched prior to arriving on campus to engage in collaborative hands-on laboratory activities. Students used camera phone colorimetry to determine the concentration of colored nanoparticles or the degree of nanoparticle aggregation in aqueous suspensions.

Undergraduate students were also instrumental in the development and implementation of Penn’s outreach program, Microscopy Camp, which serves middle school students and middle and high school teachers. This program teaches and reinforces the understanding of the particulate nature of matter. Camp participates use critical-thinking skills to combine scientific knowledge, processes, and reasoning to understand the macroscopic and microscopic structures of their particles.

Penn is interested in guided-inquiry teaching. She worked with a high school teacher to develop a method for using handheld cameras to quantitatively determine the concentration of a colored analyte using Beers Law, which relates absorbance to concentration and is a topic covered in General Chemistry both at the high school and college levels. This guided-inquiry activity was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Chemical Education.

One of her students wrote: “Lee Penn is an excellent teacher and my favorite so far. She knows her material well and explains it in a way that her students can understand. Her expectations are high and she challenges everyone to learn. I would recommend taking a chemistry class with her to any student. Also, the demonstrations are really cool—makes chemistry more interesting.”

In addition to her classroom teaching, Penn is also deeply committed to teaching undergraduates through research. Since coming to the University of Minnesota, 36 undergraduates and 3 high school students have completed research projects in her research group. Thirteen of those have co-authored papers with Professor Penn and other members members of her research group.

Penn is an advocate for diversity and has a personal and professional commitment to improving the diversity of people studying and working in science, technology, engineering and math fields. She is the founding chair of the Chemistry Department’s Diversity Committee and is a leader for Ally Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer training. As an advocate, mentor, and adviser, Penn wants to both raise awareness about issues and change policies and behaviors around all issues of diversity.

“Lee consistently goes well beyond the regular expectations for teaching, demonstrating a passionate commitment to our teaching mission at all levels,” said Professor William Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “She has made outstanding contributions to the teaching of undergraduates in the classroom and laboratory using innovative techniques. Through these efforts as well as her development of new methods for teaching fundamental concepts in chemistry, active leadership in implementing diversity training for faculty in the department, and mentoring and advising of undergraduates, she has had an exceptional impact on the university.”

Penn will become a member of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers and will have conferred upon her the title Distinguished University Teaching Professor or Distinguished University Professor. She will receive a $15,000 award, which reflects the university's strong and enduring commitment to quality undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Minnesota. She will receive the award, Wednesday, April 8, at a ceremony at the McNamara Alumni Center. She also will be introduced to the Board of Regents at its May meeting.

Each year since 1965, the University of Minnesota has recognized a select group of faculty members with the Morse Alumni Award. Since 1990, 14 faculty members from the Department of Chemistry have received this honor, including current faculty members David Blank, Christopher Cramer, Mark Distefano, Thomas Hoye, Doreen Leopold, Kenneth Leopold, Kent Mann, and Jane Wissinger.