Warren Tomkiewicz

Jon Gilbert Fox photo.

Distinguished Teaching Award

Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy; Professor of Earth System Science and Science Education

“When I look at the list of people who have received this award, they’re all people I have a great amount of respect for,” says Warren Tomkiewicz. “It’s quite a gallery.”

Tomkiewicz attended Plymouth State as an undergraduate, earning a degree in biology in 1966. He continued on for a master’s degree in biology from Northeastern and a doctoral degree in biology and environmental education from Boston University, and returned to Plymouth in 1988 as a faculty member. In the 22 years since, he has developed a healthy sense of institutional history—and an understanding that part of a professor’s duty is to move with the times.

Keeping current with science content is one of his favorite parts of the job, and he has long been interested in the use of technology as a teaching tool. “We need to understand all the technology that is available to students,” he says. “More students bring laptops to class—what do we ask them to do with those? When we’re discussing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and students are pulling up current pictures and information online, that’s a useful tool.”

Along with undergraduate science courses, Tomkiewicz also teaches graduate courses on science education. The combination, he believes, helps him stay on top of his game as a professor. “I work hard at trying to model effective teaching practices in all of my classes,” he says. “It’s especially helpful in my science education courses, where students can both learn the content and understand the methods I’m using.”

In addition to working with future science teachers, he shares those effective teaching practices with current teachers through partnerships and outreach efforts that support science education in public schools. “We can always be improving and enhancing what we’re doing in public school classrooms,” he says. “We’re learning so much about how people learn; we need to bring that information to teachers.”

Tomkiewicz shudders at the idea of a university as a lofty “ivory tower” of learning: “I hate to even use the term, because that’s so far from who we are and what we do,” he says. “We’re working hands-on with science teachers all the time.”

While he’s working to improve science literacy, he recognizes that many of his undergraduate students are apprehensive about the subject. He prides himself on making science approachable. “I love having students learn to enjoy science,” he says. He also appreciates the chance to work with science students throughout their time at PSU. “It makes you proud as a teacher that you’ve had some small part in their growth.”

In addition to extraordinary teaching on campus, Tomkiewicz has had a significant impact on the teaching of science across the state and the nation. Among other achievements, he developed the course guide “The Habitable Planet,” a series of environmental science courses produced in association with the Harvard Smithsonian, Center for Astrophysics. The series was recently awarded the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Rather than viewing the Distinguished Teaching Award as recognition for what he has done in the past year, “I see it as honoring a faculty member’s long-term commitment,” Tomkiewicz says. “We have a commitment to constantly improve ourselves as teachers, to recognize that always, teaching is learning.”

Jennifer Philion