Professor Kris Schmidt usually sticks to his syllabus, but this week, with the clock winding down before final exams, he was forced — by his appreciative students — to take a break.
Between lectures on the glucose transports systems and adrenocorticotropic and pancreatic hormones, Schmidt’s human physiology class at Eastern Mennonite University sipped smoothies from Tropical Smoothie Café in celebration of his Gold Star Teacher Award, an award come to fruition (no pun intended) by the publicity efforts of graduate student Alethea Gnanakan.
She heard about the contest on the radio. Each month, Q101 selects two teachers for recognition from student nominations. Gnanakan secretly rallied her classmates via email to send in nominations. Every single one did.
“Thirty-one of something like 60 nominations this month were for him,” said Harrisonburg Radio Group publicist Nancy Dickerson. “And Alethea was calling and texting to check. He is obviously a favorite.”
What makes Schmidt such a good professor? One student said he uses a variety of teaching techniques and is always available to answer questions. Serious learning is mixed with moments when he tells a funny story and “we take time to just laugh.” Schmidt’s mentorship, this student says, has helped him excel in classes and see himself as a “higher caliber student.”
Schmidt arrived at EMU in fall 2017 from Goshen College. He teaches biology courses to undergraduate and graduate students and directs the undergraduate pre-professional health science program.
His wife, Kathryn, and son Zachary, 5, came to class to join the celebration.
Gnanakan, who aspires to go to medical school, says Schmidt’s support — she describes him as “super-invested” — during her preparations has been invaluable.
He also has a “genuine gift for teaching,” she added. “I think the secret to his unique teaching ability may be that he is a storyteller. Much of science is a narrative of why different events take place and what happens as a consequence. This is also what makes science a challenging subject because you have to tie many small details together to tell a story of what’s happening in the body.”
Gnanakan added that Schmidt has an “extraordinary ability to fill the space between questions and answers with understanding.”
“He nurtures us as a class in dialogue, empowers us to cultivate an inquisitive mind, and then also to pay it forward by teaching others,” she said.
Another student shared appreciation for his “enthusiasm and energy” in the classroom, but also “the tremendous amount of time and effort into helping students connect with opportunities outside of class with research projects and travel experiences. “He’s gone out of his way to help his students find success inside and outside of the classroom,” she said.
After selfies were taken with Q101 radio personality Brandy and he was presented with a $30 gift certificate to the Green Valley Book Fair, Schmidt looked at the clock, clearly calculating the material left to cover before class was over.
“Ok, you drink your sugary smoothies and I’m gonna get started on this material,” he told his students, and then he paused, ever the teacher. “Now, is the insulin you are producing from this smoothie an exocrine or endocrine secretion?”