Robinson, Weidner, Cunningham tapped as Tennessee Tech's 'Outstanding Faculty'

Tennessee Technological University recently announced the winners of its annual Outstanding Faculty Awards. Stephen Robinson, associate professor of Physics, and Heidemarie Weidner, assistant professor of English, are the 1997 recipients of the Outstanding Faculty Award for Teaching. Home Economics Professor Cathy Hix Cunningham has been named the 1997 recipient of the Outstanding Faculty Award in Professional Service.

Robinson and Weidner, although relatively new to Tennessee Tech's faculty, have already managed to completely restructure the teaching of their respective fields. Through the forums of television and newspapers, Cunningham has helped educate the public about new research showing nutrition to be a guiding force of good health.

All three award winners will be recognized for their achievements and receive a plaque and $1,500 honorarium during spring commencement on May 10.

Stephen Robinson

Robinson's peers consider him an innovator and praise his efforts to make a necessarily difficult field more accessible.

"Steve has a talent for looking at classes in a new way and being able to bring those new ideas to fruition in the classroom," says John Shriner, chairperson of Physics, who cites in particular Robinson's participation in a new national teaching experiment. The Constructing Physics Understanding (CPU) project is a radical change from traditional methods of teaching physics.


"Lectures are minimal; instead, students learn by working in teams through experimental situations and then discussing their results among themselves and with the instructor," says Shriner.

Education major Whitney McIntosh admits that before taking Robinson's class, she was apprehensive about taking physics. Now that she has?

"We are currently studying forces and motion, how things speed up or slow down, why objects accelerate, and how resistance and friction play a part in the motion of an object. For every new concept, an experiment is performed and the results are analyzed. Time always flies by, and before I know it, our two and a half hours are up. I leave class with an understanding of a certain physics aspect. I remember it and try to see how it affects people and objects in every day life."

Robinson is a member of one of only 24 teams selected from across the nation by San Diego State University to trial test the CPU project. David Murdock, with whom Robinson co-teaches astronomy labs, sees the project as "interesting and important.

"The things that our department learns from his experiences here may well help us in all of our teaching."


Robinson earned his doctorate from the University of Sussex, England, in 1983 and joined Tennessee Tech's faculty in 1991.

Heidemarie Weidner

When the English Department hired Weidner four years ago, it had no coordinator of its composition program -- arguably the most important part of the department's teaching mission. She immediately began revamping the program: choosing challenging material, expanding texts and research methods and employing computer technology.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that Dr. Weidner is responsible for the complete overhaul of our freshman composition program," says Robert Bode, interim chairperson of English. "She has begun a process of educating the faculty, both full- and part-time, in the latest information on the teaching of composition, and she has encouraged faculty to put this information into practice in their courses."

Her peers and students alike are benefiting from her restructuring of the composition area. Student Kevin Smith doubtless echoes the experience of many when he says that high school English taught him a single way to write.

"This method of teaching often left me confused and focused not on what ideas and opinions I myself held, but rather those I felt the teacher wished me to express. Dr. Weidner, however, helped me see that there were different methods for writing. Her introduction of peer review and group interaction helped eliminate the desire to write to and for the teacher while letting us further explore our thoughts and address a broader range of audiences."

Weidner's methods are catching on.

"Traditionally, we English teachers are a bit timid about using technology to enhance writing," says instructor Mary Padget. "Heide has gone beyond keeping up with her students: She has led the way for them to use the powerful resources Tennessee Tech can provide. Her teaching has profoundly influenced the composition program at Tennessee Tech."


Weidner joined the faculty in 1993, after earning a doctorate at the University of Louisville in 1991.

Cathy Cunningham

For the past four viewing seasons, Cunningham has hosted the popular "Cumberland Cooking" series in conjunction with public television station WCTE. Her development of the show, which features cooks from throughout Tennessee and the region, was a volunteer effort; 53 episodes later, she's still volunteering her time to coordinate each program's content and host each show.

She and the producers at WCTE have also taped three specials which have been distributed and aired nationwide on public television.

"In just one cooking special alone, we received over 600 recipe requests from all over the country," says Tina Majors, development director at the station. "These programs are adored by our viewers and are used as instructional tools by many."

"Cumberland Cooking" is hardly Cunningham's only nutritional outreach tool. She's also the editor of three columns published by newspapers throughout the Upper Cumberland. "At Home," "Food and You" and "Home Helpers" answer the public's increasing questions concerning nutrition and good health.

Cunningham volunteers as a consulting dietitian to Lazarus House Hospice, the Putnam County Sheriff's Department and, while it existed, the Cookeville Community Free Clinic. In addition, she's a fervent supporter of the Putnam County chapter of the American Cancer Society.

"Cathy has assisted with many of their workshops," says Barbara Reynolds, dean of Nursing, "and discusses the nutritional aspects of cancer treatment. The talks are always fresh and bring out new knowledge. She speaks easily about preventive measures, good maintenance nutrition and therapeutic nutrition."

Cunningham is a former American Council on Education Fellow, as well as a faculty research participant and consultant with the Oak Ridge Associated Universities' Biology Division.

Cunningham joined the faculty in 1974, earning a doctorate from the University of Tennessee in 1976.

Last year's winners of the teaching award were Barbara Jackson of Chemistry and Ken Purdy of Mechanical Engineering; Donald Weinrauch won the 1996 service award.