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Two UW–Madison academic staff educators receive teaching awards

August 29, 2011

Two University of Wisconsin–Madison educators are among the recipients of the UW System’s 2011 Alliant Energy Underkofler Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Katy Culver, faculty associate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Janet Branchaw, faculty associate and interim director of the Center for Biology Education, received two of the four awards given by the UW System this year.

A rich undergraduate experience is absolutely critical to the educational mission at UW–Madison, says Provost Paul DeLuca.

“Although our faculty are internationally recognized for the quality of their teaching, these accomplishments are strongly complemented by the simply outstanding efforts of our instructional academic staff,” DeLuca says.

The Underkofler awards are given annually to four teaching faculty and academic staff at UW System institutions by the Alliant Energy Foundation as a tribute to the energy company’s longtime senior executive, James R. Underkofler, an advocate for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

Just like the best journalism today, great teaching is a collaborative venture, Culver says.

“I never would have been able to teach my courses without our outstanding students or my top-notch colleagues,” she says. “I’ve taken some chances on innovations here and have felt trusted, respected and supported every single time.”

Branchaw says she was honored to receive the award and represent UW–Madison.

“I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to work and learn with so many excellent colleagues and students on our campus, and to be able to contribute to a world-class research and teaching institution,” she says.

Culver and Branchaw are best known for teaching courses they designed, which provide core basic training in their fields.

Culver teaches Journalism 202, the point of entry to the school for journalism majors.

“Katy has had a direct and positive influence in every single UW–Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication major who has graduated over the last decade,” says journalism school director Greg Downey. “The preparation she offers to new majors for our rigorous curriculum — and for their future careers — is exemplary.”

Branchaw was recently appointed interim director of the Institute for Biology Education, a cross-campus unit dedicated in large part to improving undergraduate teaching and learning in the biological sciences at UW–Madison. She has worked for the institute for more than 10 years, specializing in developing programs and courses that provide practical support for underrepresented students in the biosciences.

Meanwhile, Branchaw has taught core biology courses, such as the introductory Biology 152 and the honors course Biocore 323, as well as Entering Research, which supports undergraduates undertaking research in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Janet has a talent for identifying barriers to student success and finding creative teaching approaches to lower those barriers,” says David A. Wassarman, professor of cell and regenerative biology.

In teaching 120 students a semester and overseeing seven teaching assistants, Culver instructs students in such journalism basics as clear, concise writing while also keeping them up to date on the latest technology for telling multimedia stories.

“Her teaching is not just preparing students for the present, but for whatever may come for the journalism profession in the future,” says former student Katie Harbath.

Her high standards have meant students bring a greater work ethic to later classes, says journalism professor James Baughman.

“I can demand more of them — and get few, if any, complaints about my demands,” he says.

Branchaw not only teaches undergraduates how to do research, but she has helped many actually receive hands-on experience. In the last 10 years, she has secured direct funding for more than 100 undergraduates to do research, leveraging those funds to support 150 more.

“It’s rare to find an educator who consistently goes above and beyond for her students each and every day,” says former student Nicholas Ellis. “Dr. Janet Branchaw is one of those educators.”

While Branchaw’s work has primarily been with undergraduates, she has also made a mark with professional students who seek her guidance. Medical students come to her for tutoring, says Richard L. Moss, senior associate dean for basic research, biotechnology and graduate studies in the School of Medicine and Public Health and a faculty member in the Department of Cell and Regenerative Biology.

“At both levels, Janet worked with students to build a foundation that allowed them to ultimately understand and work with course material at the level required for their major or professional degree,” Moss says.

Culver and Branchaw will be honored for their achievement by the UW System at an Oct. 14 awards ceremony and reception. It is scheduled from 2–4 p.m. in 1920 Van Hise Hall, 1220 Linden Drive.