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BVU’s Wythe Award winner continually seeks improvement

May 14, 2021 3:48pm

Dr. Wesley Beckwith, Assistant Professor of Psychology, was named the 35th recipient of the George Wythe Award, Buena Vista University’s highest honor for excellence in teaching, during the University’s Employee Recognition Celebration in Schaller Memorial Chapel on Friday.

“I’m a firm believer that in many ways we are a product of our community and the people around us,” says Beckwith. “There have been numerous people at BVU who have been influential in my development.”

And people at home, too. Beckwith was quick to credit his wife, Kristi Beckwith, who often serves as his test market for teaching methodologies. In addition to helping raise the couple’s two young sons—with a third on the way—Kristi takes the time to complete lab or classroom tasks in advance of her husband bringing them to BVU.

“As I piloted out to students how to code in R (a statistical software program), Kristi, who has no coding experience, was willing to go through the assignment as a proxy for students,” Beckwith says. “She’s been so gracious and supportive.”

Dr. Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, BVU Dean of the School of Liberal Arts/Professor of History, and Dr. Wind Goodfriend, BVU Professor of Experimental Psychology/Division Chair for Social Sciences, were among the colleagues Beckwith cited for their patience and encouragement.

“Who I am as a teacher is very much influenced by people who serve as mentors,” Beckwith says. “I’ve had many conversations and I’ve taken the advice of my colleagues and mentors at BVU, Dixee and Wind would be primary examples, as have others who’ve taken the time to visit my classes, and spent time with me visiting about those classes, having long discussions about the benefits, the values, what works, and what doesn’t in teaching.”

 

Beckwith notes how fortunate he was to be afforded autonomy in developing an animal-behavioral lab for his BVU students, an area in which he and his students execute research on alcohol and related substance addiction. He designed, constructed, and programmed every detail in the complex of operant chambers and mazes from scratch, providing in sweat equity an outcome that saved the University thousands of dollars in building costs alone.

“When I have time, I enjoy hand-tool woodworking,” says Beckwith, a Colorado native. “I build little projects and I tinker and that’s why I was able to build those chambers in the BVU lab.”

A colleague noted that even before Beckwith officially started with BVU four years ago, he helped BVU students plan research projects and write grant proposals.

In his course on experimental design and statistical analysis, Beckwith implemented a new software program that leads students to an understanding that rivals entry-level graduate school experience in statistics, a development that has resulted in the completion of summer research and Scholars Day projects. It also paved the way for a student to earn a regional research award at the Midwest Psychological Association Conference, a first for BVU.

“Dr. Beckwith spends hours and hours preparing live demonstrations of psychological phenomena,” a colleague writes. “His students aren’t just hearing summaries of classic research or how the mind works theoretically—they are actually testing hypotheses in class. He’s a master of making esoteric concepts engaging.”

For Beckwith, the epiphany occurred during his undergraduate study at a liberal arts institution. After enjoying introduction to psychology, his advisor recommended a pair of psychology classes the following semester: statistics in psychology and introduction to biopsychology.

“Those classes did it,” he says with surety. “They showed me psychology isn’t just therapy or mental illness. It is so much more.”

 

Following his graduation from Coe College, Beckwith would earn his master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology from the Addiction Neuroscience program at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. He defended his dissertation in the summer of 2017 and within one week was on his way to Storm Lake to begin his teaching career.

“The first class I taught was general psychology and I remember my heart pounding in my chest,” he says with a smile.

Students, he assured, keep him grounded and keep him striving for improvement, for better methods, for more solutions.

“BVU students influence and teach me as much as I impart to them,” he says. “The interaction with students is the most rewarding part of my profession. It’s not the grading or the coding; it’s watching students grow and helping them in the same way I was helped by my former teachers and mentors.”

The George Wythe Award, endowed through a gift from the late BVU Life Trustees Drs. Paul and Vivian McCorkle, BVU Class of 1959, includes a $30,000 stipend and a sabbatical through which Wythe laureates may pursue professional development and research. Beckwith notes he’d like to join a lab research effort on electroencephalography (EEG) brain imaging in his effort to bring the technique back to BVU students for their use.

“Paul and Vivian McCorkle stated that this award is about making better teachers and improving the educational process at BVU,” Beckwith says. “In earning this honor, it my responsibility to raise my own level. This isn’t the end; this is all about improvement. It will make me a better teacher, and that’s entirely the purpose.”

The award is named for George Wythe, the educator whose students included Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, James Monroe, and Henry Clay. The other nominees for the 2021 Wythe Award included: Dr. Lisa Mellmann, Associate Professor of Chemistry; Dr. Richard Riner, Assistant Professor of Criminology/Criminal Justice; and Dr. Karin Strohmyer, Associate Professor of Special Education, and Division Chair for K-12 and Special Education.

BVU announced several awards in annual presentations made by BVU President Brian Lenzmeier on Friday.