David Cox, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and of computer science, uses cutting-edge, high-performance computing techniques to teach undergraduates how the brain works. Lorgia García Peña, assistant professor of Romance languages and literatures and of history and literature, teaches students about ethnic, race, and national identity formations through literature. This year, the two members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) have something in common: They’re both winners of a 2017 Roslyn Abramson Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
“David Cox’s and Lorgia García Peña’s love of teaching exemplifies a Harvard education at its best,” said Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith. “Each have engaged and challenged students in the classroom and the lab, ignited students’ passion for their respective fields, and prepared them to lead in a complex world. I offer my congratulations to David and Lorgia for an honor well-deserved.”
The $10,000 award, established with a gift from Edward Abramson ’57 in honor of his mother, is given annually in recognition of “excellence and sensitivity in teaching undergraduates.” Recipients, drawn exclusively from FAS, are chosen on the basis of their ability to communicate with and inspire undergraduates, their accessibility, and their dedication to teaching.
Cox said he was honored when he found out that he was a recipient of this year’s Abramson Award.
“I am grateful to my department and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to have been given the flexibility and resources to explore new ideas in teaching so early in my career,” he said. “I’m also grateful to the students whom I’ve taught so far — their curiosity and enthusiasm makes my course a joy to teach.”
Cox teaches one course, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience.” It’s an intensive introduction to topics in neuroscience, ranging from the inner workings of neurons to the function of small neuronal networks to the function of brain systems that give rise to perception, thought, emotion, cognition, and action. The course is tailored for highly engaged students who are interested in pursuing a neurobiology concentration or secondary.
What makes this course unique, however, is that it’s taught in a “flipped classroom” format.
“Students complete lessons from the HarvardX online version of the course outside of class, and then 100 percent of in-class time is devoted to discussion and student-driven synthesis of material,” explained Cox. “This course represents the fruition of a multiyear arc that I’ve been developing since I arrived at Harvard, aimed at fusing online and on-campus learning.”
In addition to reaching learners globally, HarvardX has worked to identify opportunities to leverage its online learning content in Harvard’s on-campus classes — and has helped create more than 20 blended courses at the University using HarvardX materials.
“I’m convinced that online courses can be a powerful tool for making the on-campus experience more personalized and interactive,” said Cox. “In my course, students get all of the nuts-and-bolts learning out of the way outside of class, using lessons that were designed to be fun, visually engaging, and easily digestible, and in-class time is all about students solidifying that knowledge and exploring topics in greater depth.”
As for the award money, Cox intends to use part of it as seed capital to help one of his graduate students launch a startup based on technology developed in the coxlab @ Harvard University.
Lorgia García Peña
Undergraduates find that García Peña’s “Performing Latinidad” questions Latinidad as a historical, cultural, and theoretical concept through literary and critical texts.
“One of the goals of the course is to provide students with an overview of the Latinx literary canon in dialogue with the various historical and social moments and movements that produced them — the War of 1898, the Jones Act of 1917, the Civil Rights Movement(s), the Delano strikes, the Zoot Suit Riots, and Operation Bootstrap,” said García Peña.
The course includes an art component in which the students, working in groups, produce an art piece that is then displayed throughout campus. Thanks to generous support of the Elson Family, García Peña has been able to invite artists to work with students in developing their pieces.
García Peña believes strongly that learning done in the classroom should not be disconnected from what is happening in the world around us.
“I encourage my students to read in contradiction, always looking for silences, omissions, blank spaces,” she said. “I think we all have that responsibility as scholars, and particularly as humanists, as much damage has been done by reading the same way — many histories and knowledge have been suppressed, erased from our archives to the detriment of our society.”
García Peña said she was incredibly humbled and grateful to her colleagues and students in accepting the award, focusing on her love of teaching and the rewards it brings.
“I learn so much from my students, everyday,” she said. “I am enriched by the discussion — particularly the challenging ones. It is a wonderful exchange.”