Science Teaching: Murphy winners

Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Prof. Peter Hollenbeck

Biological Sciences Prof. Peter Hollenbeck (center) gets some camera time after receiving his Murphy Award.


College of Science faculty members Peter Hollenbeck and Marcy Towns were among six exceptional teachers recently honored by Purdue with the 2013 Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Awards in Memory of Charles B. Murphy. Murphy was a history professor at Purdue between 1927 and 1970.

The University’s highest undergraduate teaching honor, the Murphy Award is accompanied by a $10,000 cash award and induction into Purdue’s Teaching Academy, which provides leadership for the improvement of undergraduate, graduate and outreach teaching.

For Peter Hollenbeck, finding the motivation to excel as a professor is simple — he truly enjoys spending time with young adults.

Hollenbeck, professor of biological sciences and associate department head for research and graduate education, teaches two classes and more than 450 students each year. In the fall, he teaches a sophomore-level biology course that all biological sciences students and many other College of Science students must take. In the spring, he teaches a senior-level neuroscience seminar that includes seven to 10 students.

“Teaching a really large class and a really small one gives me the opportunity to help shape a lot students’ science education really early on while also letting me teach our seniors on a one-to-one basis,” Hollenbeck says.

“Having contact with so many students means I have to really love doing this — and I do. I really enjoy being around young people. I love the energy and curiosity they bring to the university, and I love being able to teach them how to use the language of science and how to think deeply in all aspects of their lives.”

Hollenbeck makes himself available all day to answer questions via email, he says. This is just one way that he puts his students first when they need him.

“It can be hard to measure your influence on a student while you’re teaching them,” Hollenbeck says, “but 10 or 20 years down the line, when they say you had a positive influence on them — well, to me, that’s as good as it gets.”

Prof. Towns gets a Murphy

Chemistry Prof. Marcy Towns (right) after receiving her Murphy Award in March.


Marcy Towns wants to make sure her students know that chemistry is relevant to their lives. In fact, Towns, professor of chemistry, says that’s one of her main goals as a teacher.

“It doesn’t matter what major they have or what profession they pursue, they will need to be scientifically literate citizens in our society,” Towns says. “We develop national and international leaders at Purdue and we want these future leaders to have a strong scientific foundation to make evidence-based, rational decisions.”

Towns has been instrumental in reworking foundational chemistry courses to improve student achievement and helping her department and the University move toward a more student-centered learning model. Her work in these areas included serving as a faculty fellow for the first Instruction Matters: Purdue Academic Course Transformation (IMPACT) cohort in 2011, where she helped to redesign CHEM 115 and CHEM 111, both General Chemistry courses.

In efforts to strengthen her engagement outside of the classroom, Towns has partnered with the Black Cultural Center to offer office hours and worked with the College of Science’s “Feasting with
Faculty” program to mentor students in various campus dining courts.

“I love getting to know the students,” Towns says. “It’s inspiring to learn about what they want to do and to help them get there.”