SRU’s Thomas captures President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching


Rebecca Thomas teaching in the field

Far right, Becky Thomas, Slippery Rock University assistant professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy, teaches students during an aquatic ecology lab at Wolf Creek Township during an aquatic ecology lab. Thomas is the recipient of the 2019 President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

April 10, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Becky Thomas knows that just sharing subject matter with her students alone does not make her an effective teacher. As the 2019 recipient of the Slippery Rock University President's Award for Excellence in Teaching, Thomas is a shining example of how an SRU professor can successfully integrate service learning, collaborative learning and research-intensive learning into the classroom, while working with community partners so that students have opportunities to gain practical and applied experiences.

"That's who I am as a practitioner; I'm community-engaged and I study the process of collaborative conservation and environmental education," said Thomas, assistant professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy. "Being able to apply the same principles to my classes here at SRU during a time when the institution is moving in a direction of community-engaged learning is really exciting for me and I'm proud to work here."

Thomas headshot


Those she's touched are glad she is a part of SRU. Thomas was nominated for the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching, which was created to recognize outstanding teachers based on their commitment to teaching beyond contractual obligations, a participatory and engaging pedagogy, developing and using innovative classroom practices and their commitment to scholarly growth. Students, peers, staff and alumni are invited to submit nomination, which are then reviewed by an awards committee organized through the Provost's Office that selects a winner from among finalists from each of the colleges. Thomas will be presented her award at 5 p.m., April 18, at the Celebration of Achievement ceremony in the Smith Student Center as part of SRU's Celebration of Excellence Month. Two other awards will also be presented at the event: the President's Award for Scholarly and Creative Achievement and the President's Award for Outstanding Advising.

"Our faculty's dedication to teaching, advising and their scholarly and creative work are the fabric of our University and raise the quality of education we provide our students," said Bill Behre, SRU president. "It's important that we honor the achievements of our faculty, especially when they are recognized by students, colleagues and other individuals who benefit from their great work."

Thomas teaches undergraduate courses in interpretation, park and wildland management, sustainability and food justice, as well as graduate-level courses about environmental issues and conservation social science research methods. Her classes have worked with community partners that include the Jennings Environmental Education Center in Slippery Rock and Maurice K. Goddard State Park in Sandy Lake, where students gained field experience assisting with habitat management projects. She also brings community partners into her classes, like the Food Justice seminar class where students learned about groups that administer the local food bank, farmers' market and community meals programs.

"My goal is for students to have things they can put on their resume, whether that's actually going out and developing an interpretive program, conducting a wildlife field study or developing a research proposal," Thomas said. "These kinds of teaching techniques require a lot of time and I'm happy to work somewhere that recognizes and values that additional time and understands that it adds value to the students' education."

But Thomas is not just a facilitator. Her research includes outcomes of conservation education programs, collaborative conservation and intergenerational transmission of knowledge through environmental education. She's worked with state natural resource management agencies on conservation education program evaluation in several locations, including Montana, Nebraska, Hawaii, Colorado and Pennsylvania, as well as collaborative conservation projects with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management.

"I am most passionate about leveraging interdisciplinary perspectives to advance solutions to conservation and natural resource management challenges," said Thomas, who came to SRU in 2015 after completing her bachelor's degree at Penn State University in 2005 and her master's and doctoral degrees at Colorado State University in 2012 and 2015, respectively. "This passion stems from a childhood of playing outside and turning over rocks to find salamanders. I have always had a deep love of nature and wildlife, and I hope through my work I can influence the next generation of conservation stewards in a positive way."

To be considered for the Excellence in Teaching Award, a nominee must teach at least nine credit hours per semester, demonstrate an exemplary commitment to teaching and student learning, maintain a classroom that promotes high student engagement and pursue scholarly growth that enhances teaching.

During her time at SRU, Thomas conducted a faculty-led program to Belize and attended the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Colombia.

Thomas' approach to teaching is the same whether its teaching an online graduate course or a service-learning class like the Wildlife and Wildlands Field Methods Management course.

"Sometimes through the computer screen it's easy to lose that personal connection with your students, but (I try to) provide that same kind of environment (as in face-to-face classes) in an online classroom where students feel like they have a safe platform to share their ideas and be a part of a community of learners," Thomas said. "And what I love about service-learning classes is every student has an opportunity to be involved in the research process. It's great that students can have opportunities to have independent studies and work one-on-one with faculty but I think sometimes what happens as a result of that is it's already the overachieving students who step into those roles. For me, I want to do everything I can to level the playing field in my classes so every student has that kind of opportunity."

Thomas credits her colleagues in the Department of Parks, Conservation and Recreational Therapy for setting her up to succeed and earn the recognition.

"My ability to develop as a teacher is because I have excellent role models in this department as well," Thomas said. "Everyone has been very supportive."

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