UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mark Brennan, professor and UNESCO Chair in Community, Leadership, and Youth Development in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and Ali Kara, professor of business administration at Penn State York, are the recipients of Penn State's 2019 Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching.
The award recognizes excellence in teaching and student support among tenured faculty who have been employed full time for at least five years with undergraduate teaching as a major portion of their duties. Milton S. Eisenhower, brother of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, served as president of Penn State from 1950 to 1956.
In nearly 25 years of teaching, Brennan said he’s aspired to break down unnecessary barriers that block positive interactions with students and instill a passion for the true wonder of the art and craft of rigorous scholarship and inquiry.
He tries to engage, interact and learn alongside his students.
“All too often the distance that grows between faculty and students is massive and often insurmountable,” Brennan said. “I’m dedicated to facilitating a highly interactive student-centered approach to teaching.”
Brennan accomplishes this by creating a highly interactive and personable environment where he can create space for informal interactions before and after class. He builds activities in the classroom that encourage group work and discussion outside of the classroom. He’s active in student organizations.
He likes to co-present content and co-lead discussions with the aid of his students and finds that this approach changes the dynamics of traditional group projects while improving understanding of the course materials.
“I am steadfast in my belief that together we are on a journey of discovery and that we collectively learn far more from each other than we do individually,” Brennan said. “Student evaluations indicate that they very much enjoy and benefit from this active learning.”
Another way Brennan engages his students is through the PSU Students as Youth As Researchers program, which is based on a program created through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
This program, developed with undergraduate students, offers a rigorous guide for carrying out locally based research projects. The goal of this research is for students to learn while engaging in research that solves societal problems.
Brennan is always looking to improve his teaching. He’s completed a dozen improvement programs offered at Penn State and just as many offered through external agencies, including several international experiences in Europe, Africa, South America and Australia.
Brennan has received numerous teaching awards including: the Academy of Teaching Excellence award (2012, 2016), Gamma Sigma Delta Teaching Award, Schreyer Honors College Distinguished Honors Fellow (2011-13) and the Lamar Kopp International Achievement Award.
“Dr. Brennan is truly a fantastic teacher,” a nominator said. “He is a very well-rounded educator, thinker and compassionate leader. He represents lectures clearly and in a way that enables students to reflect and comprehend sometimes difficult concepts. He challenges students to push their perspectives, defend their thoughts with objectivity and evidence, and collaborate with one another.”
Kara believes undergraduate coursework should provide usable knowledge and critical thinking skills that help advance students’ learning and careers.
Kara said, after decades of personal growth, he’s learned that effective teaching requires lifelong learning, adaptation and innovation. He said effective educators understand the course material, curriculum development and student-advising.
“Faculty mentors played a crucial role in my education and career and hence I try to provide a similar opportunity for my students,” Kara said. “I help them to realize their own potential and expand their critical thinking. Through interactions in the classroom, advising sessions and mentoring, I try to provide professional guidance and personal support to help them succeed in school and in their careers after graduation.”
He was part of the core faculty group who developed the Bachelor of Science in Business (BSB) program in the late-1990s, which became a popular shared program across the 17 Penn State campuses. Since the development of the BSB program, Kara has been actively involved with efforts of curricular revisions to meet the changing needs of students and the business environment. Through this, he has learned the importance of implementing an undergraduate curriculum that focuses on student development while addressing the needs of future employers.
Long interested in innovative and alternative teaching methods, Kara embraced distance education, which later became Penn State World Campus.
Kara has received the York Campus James H. Burness Award for Excellence in Teaching (2016) and Academic Advising Award (2010). He’s a longtime member of the Graham Entrepreneurial Leadership program at Penn State York. This program links students to business partners who support student learning through internships, dialogue and consultation. Kara was involved in the development of the program’s annual Start-up Challenge, where students compete for the most innovative startup ideas.
A nominator and former student said Kara is passionate about student learning and success and always takes time to steer students in the right direction.
“In the classroom he’s always engaging students with real-life examples, whether they are personal or examples of current events,” a nominator said. “For instance, in international business, he would always start the class by asking what we have been following in the news. That always helped the students focus and become involved in the discussion.”