In teaching, Cornell plant pathologist George Hudler likes to think outside the box. His popular undergraduate course, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, an introduction into the world of fungi, weaves science with humor, presentations and fungus-related tales. As many as three-dozen other instructors, including a number of his students, have followed his model to teach similar courses at other institutions.
"I always felt from the get-go that people who shun science topics might view them differently if I took the time to put the message together in a way that is interesting or unexpected," Hudler said.
To expand on his teaching innovations, Hudler has been named Cornell's Menschel Distinguished Teaching Fellow for 2012-13. The one-year fellowship, funded by the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education in connection with the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), is intended to engage a distinguished faculty member in promoting the university's teaching mission.
"Our Menschel fellows are champions for inspired teaching at Cornell," said Theresa Pettit, CTE's director. "They use their unique talents and experiences to encourage the universitywide dialogue on teaching excellence among their peers."
To do so, the fellow develops a project through CTE to enhance campuswide engagement with teaching, with the help of a $10,000 stipend from the Menschel family. The fellow also serves as a liaison between faculty and CTE programs, keeping up on CTE's short- and long-term plans.
"The Menschel fellowship is a way of making the activities of the center visible to faculty, and of bringing the concerns of faculty to the center; it offers a channel of engaged communication in both directions," said Laura Brown, vice provost for undergraduate education.
"George has earned several prestigious teaching awards and is a widely recognized and excellent teacher and a person on campus who can convey the importance of teaching as a major achievement," Brown added.
Hudler is already brainstorming about a new interdisciplinary teaching model that could involve three faculty members from diverse fields. One idea, tentatively dubbed the "willow course," might begin with an instructor introducing the evolution, physiology and ecology of willows, Hudler said. Around the third week, as the first instructor discusses the possibility of a Neanderthal man accidentally curing his headache by chewing on a willow twig, a second instructor might then step in and transition to lecture about how salicylic acid (upon which aspirin is based) is derived from the willow's bark, the chemistry of aspirin, how it works in humans. From there, in subsequent weeks, a third instructor might lecture on folklore, symbolism or mythology surrounding willows.
"Willow is the first idea that I came up with, but I am excited about the possibility that if I laid out the concept, others might think of their own audience," Hudler said. Other ideas include two courses on sunlight that could cover the science of stars, photosynthesis, skin cancer and vitamin D, for example. And Hudler says, a junior faculty member paired with two teaching veterans would offer an ideal situation for mentoring.
Hudler's own research addresses willow leaf rust, a willow fungus pathogen with many varieties. As researchers develop uniform clones of faster growing willows for biofuels feedstock, they run a greater risk of losses from diseases when host plants are grown in monocultures.
Hudler joined the faculty at Cornell in 1976. His numerous teaching awards include the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Edgerton Career Teaching Award.