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Pioneer of 'Flipped Classroom' Teaching Style Wins Career Award

Tom Owens Receives Award
Tom Owens receives the 2017 Louis and Edith Edgerton Career Teaching Award from Dean Kathryn J. Boor during the Dean’s Awards Dinner April 17 at the Statler Hotel. Photo by Chris Kitchen / University Marketing.

Tom Owens is known as a tireless teacher, cherished mentor, and pioneer in the “flipped classroom” approach to teaching. He is now known as something else: the 2017 Louis and Edith Edgerton Career Teaching Award winner.

Owens, associate professor of plant biology in the School of Integrative Plant Science, received the award April 17 during the Dean’s Awards Dinner at the Statler Hotel. At the annual event, Dean Kathryn J. Boor honored a select group of CALS students, faculty, and staff, highlighting achievements in undergraduate education, teaching, and advising.

The Edgerton Career Teaching award was established in 1980 to recognize annually a faculty member in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who has taught for at least 25 years and demonstrated outstanding teaching and advising.

Colleagues, students, and former students described Owens as a teacher and mentor who is generous with his time and invested in helping his students succeed. He has been a pioneer in developing new teaching methods, including “flipped classroom” methods that prioritize development of critical thinking and problem solving skills over rote memorization.

Jeff Doyle, professor and chair of Plant Breeding and Genetics, described Owens as “a man of integrity, courage, and conviction, who has always put students first.”

"I’ve taught with Tom, and it is so patently obvious that he loves teaching, and loves students,” Doyle said. “It is a tough love—he is very demanding, and accepts nothing less than a full effort on their part. But he meets them more than half way, and works tirelessly to be the best teacher he can be.”

Sam Olyha ’14 first met Owens as a freshman in 2010. He was both her advisor and the professor for her first class, BioG 1440: Comparative Physiology. After graduating in Biological Sciences, Olyha went on to be a Marshall Scholar at the University of Oxford, and is now an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Yale School of Medicine.

“Professor Owens has served not only as an extraordinary advisor, teacher, and mentor, but he has also supported me every step along the way in my academic journey,” Olyha said. “I am certain that I would not be where I am today without his support and guidance. He is an exemplary educator for whom I have the utmost respect, and I have found him to continue to be so many years after first taking his course. He is, quite simply, the best mentor and teacher I have ever had."

Owens has taught a variety of courses over his 30 years at Cornell, including such staples as plant physiology, plant biochemistry, introductory biology, and many others. He has also taught courses through the Cornell Prison Teaching Program, served as Director of Graduate Studies in Plant Biology, and participated in multiple curriculum development committees.

He has already received five other awards for his exemplary teaching and advising, including being named a Life Science Teaching Fellow by the National Academy of Sciences.