January 26, 2010

Prof’s Innovative Approach Earns Him USDA Teaching Award

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Prof. David Levitsky, nutritional sciences and psychology, received the USDA Excellence in College and University Teaching Award on last November. It is an honor he said he hardly could have imagined when he first arrived at Cornell as a postdoctoral fellow in 1968. Today, Levitsky teaches one of the most popular courses at the University. Over the last two decades, enrollment in his famous introductory course, Nutritional Science 1150 “Nutrition, Health, and Society,” has grown from 40 to 500 students.

When Levitsky came to Cornell, he challenged himself in an unfamiliar territory: teaching.

“I realized that I knew nothing about teaching, so I asked if I could teach a course in psychology back in 1968,” Levitsky said. “At the beginning, I taught students the way I learned when I was in school: I got up, read notes, and had the students take notes during lectures.”

But when Levitsky began his teaching career, students demanded to learn the applications of knowledge to everyday life. One such student confronted Levitsky and sparked the professor’s determination to reshape the classroom’s passive learning method.

“I still remember that the first day of class, a student stood up at the beginning of lecture and asked me to explain why he should study this course,” Levitsky said. “He would like to learn about the relevance of this course to his life. That completely changed my mind about teaching.”

Rather than projecting information, Levitsky realized that teachers should communicate the value of the information to the students, he said. When Levitsky took over NS 1150, he searched for guidance from his personal experience as a student.

“I thought about the first nutrition course that I took in college, and it was terrible,” Levitsky said. “It was all note-taking and memorization.”

Levitsky turned to 50 major universities across the nation, including Michigan and Wisconsin, and asked for the syllabi of their introductory nutrition courses, hoping that these references would enlighten him. Levitsky said that he discovered that all of the universities employed the same teaching style.

To place scientific facts into the context of students’ everyday lives, Levitsky decided to lecture about diseases and weave the fundamentals of nutritional studies into his discussions.

“I talk about carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins within the capsules of pathologies,” Levitsky said. “For example, when I talk about cancer, I would also talk about cell growth. I would also talk about amino acids and their importance in growth.”

Besides demonstrating the applicability of nutritional information, Levitsky also seeks to captivate students in unconventional ways.

“I remember there was a time when he actually brought in pans and cooking supplies to class,” said Lin Zheng ’11, a student who took NS 1150. “Right there in front of the lecture hall and hundreds of students, he stood on the stage of Kennedy Auditorium to give us a live demonstration of how he usually cooks food, and shared his own recipe with the class.”

To show the relationship between nutrition and physical activities, Levitsky stripped down to his t-shirt and shorts and ran around Kennedy Hall. “I tried to explain what was used in my body to support my run at different time intervals,” he said.

While Levitsky puts much thought into planning his classes, Levitsky insists that he always has to “teach on his feet.”

“I taught the graduate student instructors of my course to teach by ear,” Levitsky said. “When I stand at the podium, I always listen to the noises in the room, like talking and moving around in their seats. I don’t get angry. I simply treat them as indications of me not having their attention.”

“It is actually really rare for a professor to perform so well in both lower and upper level courses,” said Prof. Patrick Stover, director of the division of nutritional sciences, who nominated Levitsky for the USDA teaching award. “For lower level courses, you have to be able to engage the students. For upper level courses, you have to engage in deep thinking.”

On top of capturing students’ attention in his lessons, Levitsky follows the latest developments in nutritional sciences closely. “My NS 11500 class is in the afternoon,” Levitsky said. “I spend the entire morning updating each lecture with current information and research literature.”

Not only Levitsky’s students but also his colleagues benefit from his grasp on past and new findings in nutritional sciences. “Sometimes I would approach Levitsky for confirmation on particular topics that I am teaching in my classes,” Prof. Charles McCormick, nutritional sciences said. “Levitsky is very generous in sharing everything he knows.”

Although Levitsky focuses on offering an informative class to his students, he said his ultimate goal is to foster critical thinking in students.

“I want them to find evidence to support the advice [on health issues] that I am giving them in class,” Levitsky said. “Sometimes I bring in advertisements and discuss with my students the limitations in believing these advertisements.”

In NS 1150, Levitsky assigns a paper where students choose a controversial health issue and find two studies that argue for and two that argue against a position on the issue. Instead of simply synthesizing their research into an essay, students evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these studies and draw their own conclusion on the issue.

“No matter what my students end up doing in the future, they will be decision-makers,” Levitsky said. “We have a lot of incomplete data these days. Most of the time, they will have to make decisions based on these incomplete data. Through this assignment, I want them to learn that there is no perfect study and recognize that.”

“Also, I hope students find passion for studying whatever subject matter they are in,” he said.

“Levitsky really strikes me with his enthusiasm. He truly loves what he does,” Stover said. “He is also very committed to the quality in what he does.”

Original Author: Jackie Lam