Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research

Excellence in Teaching Award

Renee Eaton; Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise

November 2017

Renee Eaton is the winner of the November Excellence in Teaching Award. This award, given by the Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER), recognizes effective, engaged, and dynamic educators at Virginia Tech. Eaton is an instructor and the undergraduate program director for the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise.

Eaton, an instructor at Tech since 2010, said she particularly enjoys teaching students in the HNFE first-year experience (FYE) class. “It’s really fun to watch their journeys and watch how they change over time,” Eaton said. “I feel like I’m able to help them get started and give them a perspective of how this translates into their future practice as a health practitioner.”

One way Eaton makes new students feel at home in the HNFE department is through the use of peer leaders in the FYE class. Sophomore, junior, and senior students are assigned to a group of six FYE students and act as mentors throughout the semester. “I have the peer leaders contact the students about a week before classes start”, she said, noting that relationship building is key from the beginning. “I’m not trying to hold their hands, but instead trying to give them some direction on how to connect to the community at Virginia Tech.” 

In October, first-year HNFE students had the opportunity to meet with HNFE and other campus faculty members as well as physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, hospital coordinators, and other community partners at a “Meet & Greet” event held in Lane Stadium. Students commented on the value of the event as they were able to talk with people from the community that may one day host them in a field study experience. 

The peer leaders also serve to motivate first-year students as they navigate the higher expectations of a college class, especially after the sometimes not-so-stellar results of the first exam in late September. “Students often experience a shift in their perception in the first semester; from feeling comfortable and successful in the classroom to an exam grade that is much lower than they expected.  At this point they may feel like a career as a health professional is not possible and they wonder how to move forward,” she said. “I have the peer leaders talk about themselves, about how they [may have gotten] a D on the first exam but they’re still doing fine. Listening and seeing other people’s journeys is helpful.

“It’s also exciting when a peer leader is accepted into their graduate/professional program as it demonstrates the reward of hard work and determination,” she continued. For example, HNFE peer leaders were recently accepted to dental and accelerated nursing school programs.

In her teaching philosophy, Eaton notes that she uses The MUSIC® Model of Motivation, created by Brett Jones, a professor in the School of Education at Virginia Tech. “My role as a teacher is to ensure that students feel empowered to make decisions about their learning, understand how and why the content is useful, believe they can succeed if they put forth the time, effort, and strategies required, are interested in the content, and believe I care about their learning and about them as a person,” she said in her statement. “I believe that a focus on continuous improvement through meaningful assessment is imperative to my practice as a teacher.”

Jennifer Culhane, director of first year academic initiatives at Virginia Tech, said that Eaton makes a positive impact in her students in a number of ways. “Renee creates student-centered and inclusive learning environments that focus on experiential learning, she directly contributes to student success in the life sciences through increasing recruitment and retention efforts, and she developed a model for high-impact practices that establish partnerships that are sustainable and expand student networks,” Culhane said. “She also fosters a culture of mentorship that spans faculty, student, and community relationships, and demonstrates the intersection of disciplinary depth and crosscutting transferrable skills.”