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Erik Sperling, Julia Novy receive Excellence in Teaching Awards

Recipients of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability’s Excellence in Teaching Awards are selected based on nominations from students, faculty, and staff.

Erik Sperling, Julia Novy, Dean Majumdar at podium
Erik Sperling, left, and Julia Novy receive the 2023 Excellence in Teaching Awards from Dean Majumdar on June 18. (Photo credit: Javier Flores)

In 2023, the school recognized with Excellence in Teaching Awards two exceptional educators who have worked to instill their students with knowledge and passion about our planet, its deep history, and paths to a more sustainable future.

Julia Novy, a professor of the practice, is known for inspiring students with knowledge, skills, and perspective needed to be effective sustainability leaders; fostering personal connections among students; and modeling the power of mindfulness in the classroom. Erik Sperling, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences, was nominated for his creativity in helping introductory students understand the scale of geologic time, for his investment in their success, and for engaging a wide variety of undergraduates with the Earth sciences.

Keeping geology fresh

Sperling leads the school’s Historical Geobiology Research Group, which focuses on Earth’s history and the evolution of life. He teaches both on campus and in the field, leading graduate seminars in California, Oman, and the Bahamas, and undergraduate field camp in Nevada and Utah.

Several nominators noted Sperling’s influence as an instructor of Introduction to Geology (GEOLSCI 1/EARTHSYS 11), which he has taught for the past seven years. Every year, he incorporates current events and finds interactive teaching opportunities to keep the material relevant so students new to geology stay engaged, according to colleagues.

To illustrate the relative change throughout Earth history and help students understand geologic time, Sperling scales 4.6 billion years and key Earth history events to the length of Stanford’s Main Quad. Later in the quarter, for an introductory mapping exercise Sperling puts rock samples on Lomita Mall outside of Geocorner that match the rock type and structures as they would appear in Wyoming. Finally, he sets out a hypothetical environment on Lomita Mall so students can generate a full geologic report suggesting where a new building could be constructed. 

“Erik sets out a more complex outcrop system on Lomita Mall for the final project. This project allows students to combine the material taught in class and lab and apply it to generate a report to submit to Stanford to suggest where to build,” nominators wrote. “Erik is passionate about geology and through these activities he is able to share that enthusiasm with the students.”

The introductory course is a requirement for undergraduates in Earth & Planetary Sciences, the Earth Systems Program, and Geophysics. Sperling brings to the course  his own expert enthusiasm for understanding relationships among geology, biology, and chemistry as a means to illuminate the origins of life. He also incorporates a wide range of Earth sciences by supporting TAs from a variety of research areas.

“Erik is an engaging lecturer who can truly inspire his students,” one nominator wrote.  

Sperling, promoted to associate professor effective July 1, will also be leading a Sophomore College course to Montana this September, Mining and the Green Economy, which investigates how to sustainably obtain the metals needed to transition to renewable energy. He was recognized for “carrying the Earth Sciences teaching torch into the future,” and bringing his passion to a large number of Stanford undergraduate students. Enrollment in Sperling’s Introduction to Geology class more than doubled from 51 in 2017 to 112 students in 2023.

“Teaching Intro Geology represents a fundamental contribution to the undergraduate mission of our department, the school and the university,” colleagues wrote. “It is a selfless and courageous task to undertake as an assistant professor.”

Another nominator added: “A standout of Erik’s teaching is how he really cares about his students and their success.” 

Mindful instruction

Novy is the co-director of the Sustainability Science and Practice (SUST) master’s program and executive director of the Change Leadership for Sustainability program, which includes executive leadership education, online learning, and the interdisciplinary SUST degree program – all of which equip students with knowledge, mindsets, and practical skills to advance sustainability.

Nominators wrote about Novy’s ability to adapt to the energy of her students and instill conviction in them as future sustainability leaders. One described her teaching methodology as “mindful instruction,” saying her classroom feels like a safe space, and a supportive and growing community.

“I looked forward to our brief guided mindfulness exercise every day, which I began to practice outside of class,” another nominator said. “I’ve noticed my own increased capacity to listen, longer attention span, and increased imagination. This is building my foundation of self-awareness to develop my own resilience and growth mindset and spread it to others as a sustainability leader.”

Novy uses a variety of teaching styles and techniques, having the students share blogs and solve case studies in teams, in addition to hearing directly from global sustainability leaders, engaging in small group discussions and lectures, and implementing collaborative team projects to create direct sustainability impact during the quarter. She also brings a plethora of knowledge from her career leading nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, and living and working with sustainability leaders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America for over 25 years.

“We met sustainability leaders of the practice in almost every session that shared their stories and led us through discussions, and lastly, we got inspired by Julia’s own wonderful attitude and achievements,” a nominator noted.

Nominators emphasized Novy’s ability to help students cultivate connections with one another and create “networks of trust” that build resilience. Among the courses Novy teaches is Case Studies in Leading Change for Sustainability (SUST 220) and the Sustainability Leadership Practicum (SUST 240) – both of which are required for the SUST interdisciplinary coterminal master’s program. SUST 220 covers topics like the circular economy, corporate sustainability strategy, integration of Indigenous knowledge in decision making, and global multi-stakeholder collaborations to advance sustainability in fisheries, ecotourism, apparel, and urban design. Students also learn leadership approaches and critical skills, such as systems thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and decision-making in complex and uncertain contexts. 

One student described the class as “truly transformational.” Another added: “As I begin to explore my next adventure after Stanford, I hope to carry with me a mental extension cord plugged back into the passion, knowledge, community that I gained in SUST 220.”

“I have never attended a class that more intensely catapulted my knowledge and ambition than Julia’s,” one nominator wrote. “After I got to know my classmates better, we started opening up, and I understood that many of us had been impacted at the same high level. I am forever grateful.”

To read about the school's inaugural class of graduates, please visit the commencement celebration story

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