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Lamar’s Westgate earns elite honor as 2011 Piper Professor

James WestgateTo recognize his dedication to the teaching profession and his outstanding academic, scientific and scholarly achievements, Lamar University’s James Westgate joins an elite group educators as a 2011 Piper Professor.

Westgate, university professor of earth and space sciences, is one of 10 faculty members in Texas to be honored by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation during the current academic year – and the 12th Lamar faculty member to receive the honor since the program began in 1958.

Lamar officials announced the award at a news conference Monday (May 2, 2011) in the Geology Building, where Westgate has taught, conducted laboratories and maintained offices since he joined the faculty in 1989. President James Simmons presented him with the $5,000 honorarium, certificate of merit and gold commemorative pin that accompany the honor.

From Mount St. Helens and Yellowstone National Park and the Big Bend of Texas to the Chihuahuan Desert and Panama, Westgate has brought learning to life through real-world situations. He is recognized as one of the most prolific science educators in Texas and beyond, said Jim Jordan, chair of the Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

Since 2001, Westgate has served as science advisor and associate director of the JASON Alliance of Southeast Texas, which each year attracts an average of 8,000 fourth- through eighth-graders and 200 science teachers to the Lamar campus.

“He has excelled as a teacher-scholar, researcher and a person of service to his disciplines of geology, paleontology and earth science,” Jordan said. “Among his contributions to science education, he became a teacher of teachers, resulting in more certified teachers in the discipline of earth science than at any other state university.”

“It is a great honor to receive the Piper Professor Award,” Westgate said. “I think one of the most significant aspects of being given the award is that it acknowledges my philosophy about the importance of students learning through doing, whether that means excavating 40 million-year-old fossils in the Utah desert, or canoeing through Neches River cypress swamps. Science is a verb, because it is a process, and it should be taught that way, and not as a list of vocabulary words. I thank several former students for their letters of support of my teaching methods. The main message we give to more than 200 Southeast Texas science teachers each year when we train them in new JASON Project activities is that students learn best when they are actively doing lab activities through which they discover scientific principles.

“The other great thing about earning the Piper Professor Award is that it acknowledges the impact and significance of programs like the JASON Project and the Teaching Environmental Science Institute, now gearing up for its 16th summer,” said Westgate. “Just as the best scientific research today happens through collaborative efforts, the same applies to science education – it works best as a team effort. I think the Piper Professor Award is really a recognition of the successes of the teams I work with throughout the year.”

Westgate has earned the university’s top honors, having been named University Professor in 2008, University Scholar in 2003 and Distinguished Faculty Lecturer in 1999. He is a three-time recipient of Teaching Excellence Awards at Lamar. In 2009, the Science Teachers Association of Texas honored him with its Skoog Cup for his contributions and leadership in the development of science education. He has garnered more than $1 million in science education and research grants, which have provided unique learning opportunities for countless students of all ages, Jordan said.

Westgate is the first Lamar University faculty member to be honored as a Piper Professor since 2004, when the foundation recognized Jean Andrews, university professor of deaf studies and deaf education. Hsing-wei Chu, university professor of industrial engineering, became a Piper Professor in 2002. Ralph Wooster, now distinguished professor emeritus of history, was Lamar’s first Piper Professor, earning honors in 1964. Other Piper Professors from Lamar have been William Matthews, geology, 1966; Roy Biser Jr., physics, 1972; Lloyd Cherry, Engineering, 1977; Mary Katherine Bell, mathematics, 1978; Russell Long, biology, 1979; Eugene Martinez, engineering, 1980; JoAnn Stiles, history, 1992; and Joseph Pizzo Jr., physics, 1995.

The Piper Foundation presents the awards annually to professors for superior teaching at the college level, making its selection based on nominations submitted by colleges and universities. The roster of Piper Professors includes faculty from two- and four-year colleges and universities, both public and private.

“He is truly an extraordinary professor,” wrote former student Jennifer Knapp, a teacher at Little Cypress Junior High School, in recommending Westgate for the award. “Almost every course that Westgate teaches involves a field trip which brings the learning to life and involves real-world situations that I have been able to bring back to my classroom.

“His teaching incorporates technology along with the Socratic questioning technique,” she said. “When asked a question, he doesn’t just give you the answer. He will pose a question back and will keep posing questions until you critically think and answer your own question.”

His students often use the word “passion” in describing Westgate’s teaching.

“Dr. Westgate is one university scientist who has so much passion for his science content that he feels the need to help others develop that same understanding and passion for his students, as well as area teachers,” wrote Patsy Magee, pre-K-12 science supervisor for the Beaumont school district.“It is impossible to be around him and not catch his enthusiasm.”

Because of Westgate’s passion, educators often ask to join him on his geological digs in the summer, said Roxanne Minix-Wilkins, secondary science coordinator at the Region 5 Education Service Center. “I don’t know of many people who would volunteer to stay in the desert for a couple of weeks digging for fossils.” Minix-Wilkins also points to his work with the JASON Project, she said, “It is because of his tireless efforts and dedication to educate our youth in the area that JASON Southeast Texas has recently been asked to model its training for National Geographic.”

Programs such as JASON and Teaching Environmental Science are successful, Westgate said, only because of the support he has received “from a great group of individuals in local industry, government agencies and non-governmental organizations who recognize the importance of science education in Southeast Texas.”

Because of that, he said, they give their time and provide funding to make these educational programs happen. In January, for example, a team of meteorologists from the National Weather service office in Lake Charles built a 6-foot-tall volcano for this year's JASON Project Operation Tectonic Fury event at LU. “They commuted from Lake Charles to LU for 12 days, so more than 9,100 fourth- through eighth-graders could see Mount Jason erupt in the auditorium everyday,” Westgate said.

Westgate has taught for 35 years at the college level, 21 of them at Lamar. He earned his bachelor of science in geology in 1975 from the College of William and Mary, master of science in geology in 1978 from the University of Nebraska, master of science in biology in 1983 from Missouri State University and doctor of philosophy in geological sciences in 1988 from the University of Texas. During his teaching career at Lamar, he has served as interim dean of graduate studies and assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Westgate has served as president, vice president and treasurer of the Texas Academy of Sciences, which honored him in 2008 with its outstanding service award. He is a research fellow in the Vertebrate Paleontology Section of the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas. Except for a two-year hiatus in 1999-2000, Westgate has continuously served since 1990 as an officer of the Lamar Chapter of Sigma Xi, The International Scientific Research Society. He has been a primary organizer for the Texas Energy Museum’s Dinosaur Day since 1992.

“Jim Westgate has made outstanding contributions to science, teaching science and his discipline, earning him state, national and international respect from the scientific community,” Jordan said. “Outside of his discipline, the respect that Jim Westgate has garnered on all levels is directly the result of his own belief in the university and larger communities and his desire to serve those communities. His record of achievement is remarkable, but, moreover, ongoing.”