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April 27, 2010

J.D. Bowers
J.D. Bowers

Dennis Cesarotti
Dennis Cesarotti

Kenneth Gasser
Kenneth Gasser

Jack King
Jack King

NIU honors Bowers, Cesarotti, Gasser for excellence in undergraduate teaching

Sociology’s King recognized for instruction

DeKalb, Ill. — “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember,” says a Chinese proverb. “Involve me, and I’ll understand.”

Understanding through involvement is a hallmark of NIU teachers, and J.D. Bowers, Dennis Cesarotti and Kenneth Gasser are among the university’s top preachers and disciples of that philosophy. The three are this year’s recipients of the Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

Bowers, from the Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Cesarotti, from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology; and Gasser, from the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, now enjoy the university’s longest-standing honor.

The recognition stands in a class of its own because the nominations and subsequent words of support originate with the young minds on the other side of the classroom.

“It’s the most flattering feeling you can have,” Gasser says. “There’s nothing better than for students to respect you and to think you’re a good teacher.”

“It’s a sign of the level to which my department and my college have supported me,” Bowers adds. “I can take risks in what I teach and how I teach.”

Sadly, the honor to Cesarotti comes posthumously. He died Friday, Jan. 29.

“Not only was Dr. Cesarotti a great teacher, but he cared about his students on many more levels,” says Cliff Mirman, who was his department chair. “In any teaching endeavor that he undertook, be it in class, office hours or curriculum development, he always went way past the ‘what is needed’ level into ‘what else can I do?’ to ensure that the undertaking was a complete success. His students adored him and vice-versa. He is sorely missed.”

Initiated in 1966, the awards honor excellent undergraduate teaching at the university, encourage improvement of instruction and promote discussion among members of the university community on the subject of teaching.

Nominees must be full-time faculty whose major responsibility is teaching and must have worked at least five full academic years at NIU. Bowers and Gasser each receive a check for $2,000.

Joining them in honor is Jack King, an instructor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who has received the university’s fourth Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction award.

Here is a closer look at the four.

J.D. Bowers

As a boy growing up in central Pennsylvania, J.D. Bowers ravenously absorbed the rich nearby history.

Most prominent on the menu were the Northumberland home of Joseph Priestley, the 18th century theologian, philosopher and political theorist, and the one-sixth-scale model of Fort Augusta, originally built by the British to defend against the raids of the French and Indians.

He also loved to dig in his grandfather’s yard to unearth arrowheads.

But the history that most ignites his passion is worlds away from the characters, artifacts and structures of colonial America. Ironically, his first exposure to the topic came at the very colonial College of William and Mary from professor Roger W. Smith, an internationally renowned scholar of genocide.

“Genocide is history with relevance. Genocide is history with meaning. Genocide is playing out before our very eyes. Roger always told us, and I pass this down to my students, that genocide doesn’t end. The implications pass down through the generations,” says Bowers, director of NIU’s Genocide and Human Rights Institute.

“I want my students to learn that we can’t allow these things to go on with moral impunity. We have to do something now. We can’t wait 30 years,” adds Bowers, who came to NIU in 2002. “In my classes, we really try to get at what causes these things and what we can do to stop it. My whole goal is to put myself out of business.”

And so his classroom is not typically one of lectures – although there are some – but a boiling cauldron of conversation and debate. He mixes caring with “a willingness to not see myself as the person who knows everything but who wants to work with the students to develop knowledge.”

Rather than recite dates, places and events, Bowers sees his role as setting match to kindling and tending to the fire as it grows. It’s the significance of history that makes it important to learn, he says, and he’s successful when students acquire “an understanding to carry with them.”

“I try to present a thesis for every class. I like the exchange with students. I like to see them exposed to new ideas and thoughts, and think through some of the issues and challenges. I like to see that develop, especially on controversial topics, because they’re still formulating their opinions,” he says.

“When there aren’t questions, and when there aren’t any challenges, then I haven’t made them think. I haven’t given them a reason to be there.”

Student Shay Galto, NIU’s current Lincoln Laureate, praises the Bowers system.

“Being a relatively shy student, I was initially terrified by his policy of encouraging students to critically analyze material as well as actively engage in discussion. This fear quickly diminished as Dr. Bowers established a classroom filled with trust and maintained an all-inclusive environment,” Galto says. “Our classroom education provided a base for critically analyzing what we were learning and a stepping stone for creating change in the world.”

Bowers also finds great lessons in classroom discussions.

“I’m always learning,” says Bowers, director of NIU’s teacher certification programs for secondary history and social studies. “At the end of every semester, I tell them ‘what you’ve taught me.’ It’s a summation of the way they’ve looked at things that’s helped me to look at things. That’s really shaped me as a teacher. Teaching is not just a delivery mechanism.”

Bowers and his wife, NIU Department of History colleague Kristy Wilson Bowers, are the parents of 8-year-old twin daughters, Caroline and Julia.

Dennis Cesarotti

Dennis Cesarotti’s mastery as a teacher of all things related to occupational safety was known across the country.

When he joined the faculty in the Department of Technology in 2003, he already had logged more than 20 years working in the risk management field, including founding the Aires Consulting Group, which had offices across the country.

He was known for challenging students and himself, asking professionals in the field if he was teaching what students need to know. “He wasn’t just focused on helping them earn a degree,” says Chuck Carroll, an NIU alum who heard those questions. “He was interested in providing students the best opportunity to make a success of their lives.”

In addition to teaching, Cesarotti was named director of the college’s OSHA Safety Education Center in 2009, and he had been using his impressive skills in the safety area to expand the center offerings.

He stood front and center as the university began crafting certificate programs aimed at preparing students for careers related to homeland security, teaching related courses and building an online course that became a pre-requisite for homeland security courses statewide. He was helping to lead an effort aimed at creating cooperative certificate programs that allow students to draw upon the strengths of programs at universities across Illinois.

“Dennis was everyone’s friend and he was always there to help. He never said no to anything,” said Cliff Mirman, chair of the Department of Technology. “It was hard to stop him from teaching five or six courses a semester – and that was on top of running our OSHA Safety Education Center.”

When he died suddenly Friday, Jan. 29, at his home in Lisle, the letters of nomination and support for the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award already were written and signed. Many are dated Jan. 28.

The letters praise him as an “exceptional communicator” and “gifted teacher” who was “highly dedicated and demanding.” Students felt excited by the real-world applications of his classes and motivated to excellence.

Students provided their comments in December.

“I have not had a professor as professional and selfless as he is. Dr. Cesarotti challenges every student to become a better individual and to be committed to improving the environmental, health and safety profession once we have left this institution,” says Hugo Morales. “I feel more prepared and more confident that I will be successful.”

“Dr. Cesarotti has the greatest ability to communicate to his students,” says Nicole Fanis. “With simple conversations, he also teaches you to critically think for yourself and have self-confidence in your answers.”

“With his passion for teaching and ability to break the most complex topic down for even a novice to understand, Dr. Cesarotti has been more than just a mentor to me and countless other students,” says Jeannine Szostak. “I have personally witnessed him go from teaching incredibly complex materials to teaching a student how to tie his necktie for an interview to spontaneously using things in the immediate vicinity as aids to help him get his point across during a lecture.”

“The first time I met Dr. Cesarotti, I was a chemistry major,” alumna Colleen Collins says. “After about an hour of talking with him about his career experience and the safety program at Northern Illinois, I changed my major.”

“Dr. Cesarotti is not only a professor at NIU, but a mentor,” says Konrad Wezka. “He shows you steps to succeed in the real world.”

Cesarotti is survived by his wife of 18 years, Cindy, and their daughters, Katy and Cari.

Kenneth Gasser

Like many young people from rural farming communities, Kenneth Gasser left for college with a plan to major in business and accountancy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the front office.

At Bowling Green State University, in his native Ohio, Gasser took a course in biology. He loved it – and aced it. So he took another. And then another.

“It was almost accidental, and I did really well, almost effortlessly. I liked the problem-solving nature of it and seeing how things work,” says Gasser, who came to NIU in 1990. “I thought, ‘I really enjoy this. Why not switch majors?’ ”

Specializing in cell biology – simply put, how the body functions – Gasser finds his students come with the same curiosity and fascination as he did. His classes lay the biology foundation “so all these facts and theories have someplace to go.”

“It’s easy to make students listen. Everyone is interested in knowing how their digestive system is working. Who wouldn’t be interested in that?” he says. “You feel more confident when you understand something, and this is so understandable. It’s a big moment for students.”

Gasser’s zeal for his topic also plays a role in those moments.

“When I start talking about how things work, I just get really animated,” he says. “I even talk about it at the dinner table, and both my kids ended up in biology – although my wife actively dislikes it if I explain what’s happening with the digestive system while she’s eating.”

Teaching never was the plan.

After earning advanced degrees in biology and physiology, he became a postdoctoral fellow and senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. He enjoyed his investigations into cystic fibrosis, but wanted a more permanent position.

When a job opened at NIU, he discovered a place reminiscent not only of Bowling Green but also of his hometown, Ottoville.

He arrived with no teaching experience, dreading what those first sets of evaluations might hold. “I was pleasantly surprised I wasn’t mercilessly destroyed by them,” he says.

No fear was necessary. The director of undergraduate studies now owns several teaching honors, the first coming as early as 1992, when he won his department’s outstanding teaching award.

Student Lauren Kuta calls Gasser “a brilliant teacher who can manage to make every aspect of biology stimulating.”

“He captures your attention with his affection for the sciences. His enthusiasm is contagious,” Kuta says. “But just because he makes it fun to learn doesn’t mean he makes it easy … you have to earn your grade. I can guarantee you that if you were to ask any student in his class 10 years from now how a muscle contracts, they would still be able to recite it verbatim.”

Part of Gasser’s secret is what students teach him. “If you really want to know something, you have to teach it to somebody,” he says.

“We’re all really good at hiding what we don’t know. Students will pick and pick and expose that. They make sure you understand better by the questions they ask. I always like the students who are full of questions, not just the ones who sit there like sponges and soak up everything you say.”

That’s true even at home. Both children of Gasser and his wife, Cindy, librarian at DeKalb Junior High School, are now in medical school: Adam is at the University of Chicago and Jessica is at Harvard. “It was all that explaining I did,” Gasser says with laugh.

Jack King

Clues to Jack King’s success are scattered like breadcrumbs along the pathway of his life.

The trail begins when the New Jersey boy first came to the Midwest and enrolled at Iowa Wesleyan College.

“I thought I wanted to be a probation officer or a social worker, but my college didn’t have those programs. I got into sociology and got hooked,” King says. “I had a really great internship experience doing juvenile probation in Florida.”

While at Iowa Wesleyan, King met his future wife, Jan, a preschool director who grew up in Chicago. The couple are parents to Alison, an administrative assistant, and Gillian, a technical writer.

“We ended up moving back to the Chicago area, and I was working at an agency where they offered you the chance to work on your master’s degree while you were working. Everyone was working on master’s degrees in public administration at NIU, and that’s how I ended up here,” King says.

Once he completed that degree, King became the executive director of a non-profit agency that served people with disabilities. James Banovetz, former director of NIU’s public administration program, later quizzed him about what would make the program more useful for people who worked at non-profit and non-governmental agencies.

“I told him, ‘Boy, it would be fun to come here and teach.’ A month or two later, he had an opening and asked if I wanted it,” King says. “I started teaching part-time in the fall of ’85.”

Soon all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

King also took a part-time job in the Department of Sociology, where he now teaches introductory classes as well as courses in contemporary social institutions, the criminal justice system and organizing for social action.

He wants students not to memorize facts but to explore how society and its institutions influence their lives.

Part of that is making the “real world” integral to his classroom philosophy. His social action students, for example, enjoy the option of substituting their written final exams with community organizing work. About a dozen took him up on that last semester.

“During the fall semester, a group of students put together a college fair for high school kids who had not really thought about college. They recruited a bunch of college representatives, high school kids and their parents to come,” King says. “It was a great success, and now we’re maybe going to do it annually.”

Sensitivity is paramount. “I try to be flexible. I try to be fair. I try to take into consideration what else is going on in these students’ lives,” he says. “It’s not just about me. It’s not just about my class.”

Student Kathryn Chiplis appreciates the approach. “He truly makes the subject fun to learn and teaches skills that will prove useful in everyday life,” she says. “He has gotten me to share his passion for sociology.”

King’s main responsibility, however, is serving as the department’s internship coordinator, placing students in the same experiences that launched him and guiding them in career decisions.

He starts not by asking what they want to do but what they don’t want to do.

“Even though I never ended up going into law enforcement, that internship gave me some direction in life,” he says. “I’ve really spent a lot of time trying to make these good experiences for the students and relevant experiences for the students.”

Meanwhile, his affection for the Pensacola area coaxes him back each spring with students who volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

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Media Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Media Relations and Internal Communications
Phone: (815) 753-9472
Email: mmcgowan@niu.edu