Stanford University

Dustin Schroeder, Thomas Hayden receive Excellence in Teaching Awards

Recipients of the school’s annual Excellence in Teaching Awards are selected based on nominations from students, faculty, and alumni.

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockJune 12, 2020

It can be difficult to find a common thread between instructors with the subject expertise spanning the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) – from machine learning, remote sensing, and volcanology to geochemistry, ecology, and science communication. But this year, a clear theme emerged between the two recipients of Stanford Earth’s Excellence in Teaching Awards: a personal commitment to students and a reshaping of the educational journey at Stanford.

Dustin Schroeder, an assistant professor of geophysics, was awarded for his ability to teach intricate geophysical concepts in an approachable, interactive way, as well as for his work to improve undergraduate curriculum within the Geophysics Department and for first-year students across the university. An Excellence in Teaching Award recognizing the work of a non-tenure-line faculty member was awarded to Thomas Hayden, professor of the practice and director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Program, for his unforgettably engaging lectures and creation of an MA program with the flexibility to help make students’ passions – no matter how exotic – into paths toward future careers. The honorees were selected based on nominations from students, faculty, and alumni.

A holistic, human-centered approach

Profile image for Dustin Schroeder
Dustin Schroeder

Dustin “Dusty” Schroeder, who joined Stanford in 2016, researches geophysical ice-penetrating radar and its use in observing and understanding the interaction of ice and water in the solar system. In addition to its application to estimating how glaciers impact sea-level rise on Earth, his work extends to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa – the basis of his introductory seminar, The Space Mission to Europa, in which students engage with the interplay of the natural and social sciences in space exploration.

One geophysics undergraduate first met Schroeder as a freshman through the introductory seminar and has since taken two courses and several field trips with him. The student’s nomination letter noted Schroeder’s gift for teaching in a way that recognizes that people come to Earth sciences in different ways, which “can make the engineers a little more thoughtful about their place in a human world, and the humanists more scientific in how they view the world.”

“Thoughts build up – sometimes lots of them – but Dusty keeps a cadence that leads to discovery and realization,” the nominator wrote of Schroeder’s teaching style. “And then we stay there, asking ourselves tough questions to grapple with a subject. The social dynamics of selecting a robotic spacecraft antenna, the simple but crazy idea that ice can pull down a satellite, thinking of Earth as a circuit, a magnet.”

Schroeder instructs foundational courses on geophysics, as well as upper-level courses on ice-penetrating radar and radio glaciology for graduate students or advanced undergraduates in geophysics, glaciology, planetary science, and engineering.

He “captures what it means to truly be a teacher, not simply a conveyor of information, and that’s what we need more of in this world,” commented an undergraduate from another department.

He serves as a mentor to both geophysics students and those pursuing electrical engineering – a department in which he also holds a courtesy appointment – due to the interdisciplinary nature of his research and teaching. That generosity extends beyond the classroom and has been especially meaningful during the shelter-in-place mandates to suppress the spread of COVID-19. Several students’ nomination letters noted how Schroeder’s personal outreach made them feel supported during this uncertain time.

“I could write an entire separate statement about his ability to explain science concepts in a way that is accessible to all, but what really matters to me is the ability of a professor to respect their students,” wrote another nominator. “I look up to Dusty, and I’m positive that any other student who has met him feels the same.”

Schroeder has embraced the opportunity to consider the full student experience in his involvement with first-year curriculum planning. His value for a broad liberal education was reflected by a faculty nominator who worked on a team with Schroeder to develop the citizenship coursework of a three-quarter, first-year Stanford Core that has been proposed to replace the Thinking Matters requirement and will be piloted in the 2020-21 academic year.

“Dusty’s participation is truly invaluable: He has helped us reframe the course so that it also addresses students whose primary interests lie in STEM. And he has helped us craft lesson plans that underscore the importance of ethical and civic reflection in technological and scientific fields,” the nominator wrote. “I’ve yet to meet a junior faculty member who cares as much about the education of all Stanford students.”

Compassionate empowerment

Profile image for Thomas Hayden
Thomas Hayden

Thomas “Tom” Hayden joined Stanford in 2008, following a career of reporting and writing about science and environmental issues for national and international publications. He launched the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Program, in 2015, which focuses on communication of complex environmental and Earth systems information to non-specialist audiences. One alum noted that Hayden sought his input as a student about how to shape the new MA program.

“Amazingly, he took my advice, valued my words and opinions, and treated me not as a student or apprentice but as an equal, a privilege hardly ever afforded to students,” the nominator wrote. “To be introduced by Tom is to feel as if you are the center of the universe, an endless fountain of accomplishments and prestige. He remembers more of my accolades than I do.”

Several students and alumni mentioned first meeting Hayden when he gave a lecture during Introduction to Earth Systems (EARTHSYS 10), the seminal course for prospective majors of the Earth Systems Program.

One person noted how experiencing Hayden’s lecture impacted a fellow student: “She had been feeling conflicted about the purpose of her degree, but after hearing Tom speak, she felt reaffirmed and reinvigorated about environmental communication. In just a 50-minute lecture! His lecture was powerful, concise, and memorable.”

Hayden’s industry experience brings a wealth of knowledge to his students, who range from artistic multimedia producers to writers seeking to become reporters at traditional news outlets. And when it comes to editing, Hayden is known for employing inexorable yet constructive markups.

“I was shocked to see my writing covered with a volume of helpful comments and critiques that outweighed the paper itself,” one nominator remarked. “Unlike other professors, his comments sought to guide me and my fellow students to a better way of writing rather than just spot fixing issues for us.”

A number of nomination letters noted Hayden’s dedication to his students both in and outside the classroom, which has continued as students are learning remotely through shelter-in-place orders or starting their professional lives. They also expressed gratitude for his efforts to help find exciting internships and job opportunities.

“He inspires me to take control of my own education and find what is important to me, and I really admire that about him,” one MA student wrote. “He has his students’ best interests at heart at all times.”

The nominators also recognized his witty, light approach to teaching subject matter that can be full of doom and gloom.

“It is well known that the stark realities of climate science and environmental communications can be rather depressing, but Tom’s compassionate and empowering teaching methods spurred us on in the face of insurmountable odds and very scary prospects.”

Another MA student wrote: “Where others are brutally honest, Tom is compassionately honest. Where others are overly competitive, Tom enthusiastically celebrates and affirms the triumphs of his peers and students. Where others are austere, Tom is joyful.”

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