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These days, it’s the sports champions, music celebrities, and corporate CEOs who attract much of the money and attention. One couple, though, is intent on giving the spotlight to those who have mastered the art and science of shaping lives.

Life Work

Elaine Vitone

  Daniel Mossé (Tom Altany photo)

A wiry-haired professor with gold-rimmed glasses writes on the board at the front of his classroom in Sennott Square. In running shoes, he paces energetically as he talks about the functions of a computer’s operating system. He moves closer to the board, touching some marker-scrawled notes, while explaining a concept. Still talking, he steps toward the roomful of undergraduates, gesturing with both hands as he elaborates about operating systems. He makes eye contact with students as he speaks. He asks a question and immediately raises his own hand to encourage an answer. He calls on students by name and tugs on his beard as he considers a reply.

Then something interrupts his flow.

“Ouch!” he says, touching his neck. “I think I pulled a muscle.” He massages the muscle. “Oh, by the way,” he adds, continuing his self-massage, “does anyone know the name of this muscle—in English?” His students perk up, intrigued, but no one in the room knows the answer.

“Well, how about in Portuguese?”

A few students chuckle; others glance around. Not surprisingly, no one responds to this question either.

The rangy professor writes the 22-letter Portuguese word on the board: esternocleidomastoideo. He tells the class that he still remembers the word from his grade-school science lessons in Brazil simply because it is so long, cumbersome, and “weird” that it stuck with him.

Then, as he paces toward the class, he says, “OK, where was I?” From there, it’s up to the students to bring him back on track: This led to that, which started with your neck, and so on, until they’re back to the lesson.

Later, Daniel Mossé—a Pitt computer science professor—explains that this digression is just one aspect of his teaching method. After all, he’s not teaching anatomy or Portuguese but computer science. To keep the students alert, he takes them along for whatever tangents might leap to mind—often the weirder, the better.

“I don’t teach for a very long stretch without stopping for a moment,” he says. “I talk about my family, my background, my neck—whatever.” These little breaks, he says, help to keep students engaged.

Mossé, who’s gregarious by nature, makes a point to learn everyone’s name by the second week of class so he can call on students individually and often. “I’ve always thrived on interaction,” he says. And it shows.

His signature style—to conduct class as informally as possible, to engage students as active participants, and to crack jokes whenever he can—keeps students guessing, aware, even entertained.

Mossé’s teaching has attracted attention beyond the classroom, too. For instance, he is a 2006 recipient of the Tina and David Bellet Arts and Sciences Teaching Excellence Awards, which recognize outstanding, innovative undergraduate teaching.

According to alumnus David Bellet (CAS ’67), the best teachers share certain traits—qualities that remind him of the effective business executives he has come to know throughout his 40 years of experience in corporate America. “You cannot run a successful company and go from a million dollars to a billion dollars unless you’re a great coach—a great teacher—and people are willing to follow you,” he says.

Bellet, who founded Crown Advisors International, an investment-management firm that helped launch successful companies such as Compaq Computer, Ciena, and Lotus Development, says both kinds of effective leaders—teachers and CEOs—are generous with their time when it comes to clarifying concepts for others, often modeling actions themselves. They do this because they understand that paying attention to the needs of individuals around them can work on behalf of the big picture. “They’re trying to do something with a higher purpose,” says Bellet.

Some might say that, in a classroom, the stakes are even higher than in billion-dollar corporate deals. There, teachers work to equip others to think for themselves and to become lifelong learners, acquiring tools for the future. Mossé, for instance, says, “I try to show students that it’s not the current technology that’s important, but it’s what they carry inside their brains. What they should be learning is a thought process that they can adapt to any situation.”

A teacher who connects in the classroom will produce hundreds, even thousands, of creative, productive adults who contribute yet-to-be-discovered advances or who spark the lives of thousands of others through the arts, sciences, or other professions.

Bellet and his wife, Tina, decided to do something to recognize the gifts of exceptional teachers. “All of us can think back to somewhere along the way where we had a teacher who made a difference,” David says. “We wanted to honor them.”

In 1998, at the suggestion of Pitt’s Beverly Harris-Schenz in the School of Arts and Sciences, the couple contributed an initial gift to the University of Pittsburgh, creating their awards for teaching excellence. Subsequently, the pair provided additional funding to sustain the awards into the future. “Our intent was to spotlight great teachers and also encourage other teachers to learn from the awardees’ techniques,” says David.

Since then, Mossé and 25 other professors from a range of arts and sciences disciplines have received the award (see timeline below), which now includes a $3,000 cash prize, as well as a $5,000 grant to the winner’s academic department to support teaching.

A well-attended dinner and ceremony on campus each April feature the award presentations—in recent years hosted by Arts and Sciences Dean N. John Cooper and including Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, past winners, and many others from the University community.

“The event is such an uplifting experience,” says Tina. “Everybody has the opportunity to celebrate wonderful teaching.” And, she adds, there’s no better place than Pitt for undergraduate teaching. “These teachers are thoroughly engaged with their students.”

Over the years, at every dinner, family members of the awardees have personally expressed thanks to the Bellets for recognizing their loved ones. “It’s very touching,” says David, “and it’s also very telling. Originally we thought the money would be the big deal, but it’s actually the public recognition.”

The awards celebrate teachers who demonstrate a devotion to student learning and a willingness to be innovative in the classroom, building on the foundations of active, collaborative, and problem-based learning. A committee of students and faculty chooses each honoree based on qualities such as effective communication, the encouragement of students to attain high standards, the integration of scholarship with teaching, the ability to advise and mentor effectively, and the ability to have a positive influence on students, colleagues, and classroom instruction.

The award winners aren’t necessarily full professors, well into their careers. The Bellet Awards are purely about exceptional undergraduate teaching, wherever it’s found in arts and sciences classrooms on campus.

Ericka Huston (Tom Altany photo)  

Ericka Huston, a chemistry lecturer and 2004 Bellet Award recipient, zips across a Chevron Hall lecture room with confidence, writing on the board, calling on students, her face and gestures animated, her voice steady and clear as 160 sets of eyes look on. Students lean in, jotting down notes, duplicating the hexagons she’s drawn on the board—structural formulas that tell the story of how molecules are born. It’s hard to believe this is the second level of one of the most feared subjects that chemistry, premed, and other students take throughout an entire four-year course of study: Organic Chemistry II.

Huston explains that one of the reasons organic chemistry has such a bum rap is that it encompasses millions of chemical reactions—an unfathomable amount of information to memorize. The trick is to recognize repeating concepts, which break down all those millions of reactions into about 15 types of reactions—a set of stories that repeat again and again.

“I put a lot of effort into making my lectures flow, transitioning between topics, and finding a common thread so that I can tell a story as much as possible,” she says. When she’s setting the stage with a fundamental piece of material, she gives students a heads up: “We’re gonna build on this—it’s not the time to go to sleep, because it will haunt you.”

She’s also not afraid to let students see her thinking in progress, as she works through complex chemical problems on the board. Sometimes she steps back, erases a portion of a formula and starts again, explaining as she goes. She turns her own stalls and starts into a transparent learning process. “Ultimately, that’s what students are doing in their own work,” she says. “When they’re learning, it’s trial and error. As they work through problems, they need to evaluate critically what is wrong and then fix it.”

In the end, Huston’s students learn more than chemistry. They learn study skills, perseverance, and work ethic—things they’ll take with them beyond the final exam and throughout their careers. In fact, all of the Bellet Award winners share that noble quality, teaching others how to think critically and solve problems on their own.

The idea of teacher-as-life-shaper hits home for the Bellets. Tina Bellet taught fourth grade for many years, and both of the couple’s fathers taught graduate-level professional classes—his in dentistry and hers in law. David Bellet’s mother, a laboratory assistant to polio-vaccine-hero Jonas Salk for a time, taught high school biology.

The Bellets had two objectives for the program: to “clap for really good teachers” and to stimulate the honorees’ peers to try new and different approaches. “I would say on both counts it has absolutely worked beyond our wildest imagination,” says David, adding that the program has been so successful he and his wife have created a similar award arrangement at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, N.Y. The couple’s two daughters, Suzanne and Stacey, are previous graduates of the school.

“There is always a teacher who has affected your life,” says Tina. “These awards give teachers something that really matters—recognition for the lasting effects they have on others’ lives.”

The way the Bellets see it, the awards are about more than just rewarding great teachers, though that’s certainly a plus. In the end, it’s also about the bigger picture. “These are people who are influencing the next generation of voters and citizens and members of our society,” says David. “They deserve this, and a whole lot more.”

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