Richard Allmendinger, EAS, Robert '55 and Vanne '57 Cowie Award
Rick Allmendinger is in the habit of answering his students' questions with more questions. "So, often the 'light bulb' moment comes when I get half way through my question but the student immediately answers their own question," he says. "It is such a great feeling to see how pleased they are that they figured it out themselves. More than once, I have had students exclaim 'That is so cool!' when they have worked out the answer on their own."
Besides technical queries, Allmendinger likes to pose public policy questions. "I'll ask them what they think we as a country should do with the city of New Orleans and then go over all of the mechanisms of delta subsidence and then ask them again," he says. "Earth science is so incredibly relevant to the challenges that society faces today—global warming, energy, fresh water, soil erosion and salinification, etc.—that it is pretty easy to get their interest up and get them talking about these issues."
Rolling current events into his lectures keeps students interested, ("I really enjoyed the professor's lectures and found the tie-ins to real-world issues and problems fascinating," reads one evaluation.) but that's not the only reason Allmendinger does it. He clearly has a passion for educating people on important issues, especially those surrounding global climate change and sustainable energy. He's done it as a guest lecturer in other professors' classes, as an invited speaker at Cornell Engineering Alumni Association meetings, and as presenter at Cornell Alumni Weekend.
"Rick has been extremely effective in propagating an informed view of these controversial yet socially critical topics," writes Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Chair Larry Brown in his nomination letter. "While the Engineering teaching awards usually honor contributions in the traditional classroom, Rick's efforts to educate students, faculty, staff and the general public alike makes his efforts deserving of special recognition. That these presentations cover—in an authoritative manner—subject matters which are not part of Rick's 'normal' research focus makes the effort all the more impressive."
Another way Allmendinger engages his students is with "clickers." He was the first in his department to try the teaching technology in 2008 and has become a total convert. "It keeps students involved rather than passively listening to someone drone on for 50 minutes, it encourages peer learning, and it enables shy students to participate as equals," he says. "It helps me as an instructor to know whether I am going though the material too quickly and, while the students are chatting with each other about the questions, I can walk around and get involved on a personal basis."
Allmendinger, who is associate dean for diversity, faculty recruiting and mentoring, also makes use of Google Earth. "It is like giving everyone their own personal helicopter," he says. "I can't take people to the Amazon Basin or to the Malaspina Glacier in Alaska, but you can fly over them in Google Earth!"
These virtual trips are mixed with real ones through Ithaca's gorges on September Saturday mornings."It is great to teach about the Earth by being outside where people can see things first hand," he says.
It's no wonder Allmendinger is described as a "guru" in one of his student evaluations. "The class taught me more than what was in the book," the evaluation continues, "and the professor really made me think about the world I live in and the implications of my decisions."