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Willmar, Minn., educator's high expectations pay dividends

Ridgewater College professor Shawn Mueske is pictured in his office on the Willmar campus. Mueske is one of four Minnesota educators recently honored by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees as an educator of the year. "I get very good students; I would call them exceptional," Mueske, a biology instructor, said in his office last week, where his award, top, was on display. Tribune photo by Ron Adams1 / 2
Shawn Mueske was presented the Educator of the Year Award.2 / 2

WILLMAR -- If the students in Shawn Mueske's biology classes are studying about fingerprints, shoeprints, blood typing, throat cultures or bacteria in food, he uses samples from students and gets them involved in the learning.

He cares about them, and they know it.

"I get very good students; I would call them exceptional," Mueske, a biology instructor, said in his office last week. "I put the bar very high, and I will never lower that bar.

"I expect certain skills from the students in my classes," he added. "If they don't have those skills, it doesn't reflect well on the school."

Those high expectations and the way his students rise to the occasion may have led the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustees to award him an Educator of the Year Award this spring.

Mueske was one of four recipients of the award this year.

Dr. Al Balay, chairman of the college's Veterinary Technology Program, was one of 37 recipients of the Outstanding Educator Award. Nominations for the program come from faculty, staff and administrators throughout the MnSCU system.

The attention he's received has been "absolutely over the top," Mueske said, and he's found it a little embarrassing.

"I'm not doing anything unlike what the majority of the faculty out here are doing," he said. "I just happened to put together a portfolio the trustees looked on with favor, but I'm not doing anything others aren't doing."

Those who are nominated and compete for the award must complete a portfolio that is more than 70 pages long. They state their teaching philosophy and talk about their students' success. They also need to outline their service to their students, profession, institution and the MnSCU system, as well as community service.

The portfolio is a lot of work, Mueske said, and he has no doubt that other colleagues would receive the honor of they chose to develop a portfolio. He was actually nominated several times before he decided to participate.

A student urged him to go ahead with the work this year, telling him the award wasn't so much about him as it was about Ridgewater and about the teaching profession.

In his portfolio, he said, he talked about what MnSCU has meant to him. "I am a product of MnSCU," he said, and he's a proud first-generation college graduate.

Mueske, 42, earned his bachelor's degree from Southwest State University in Marshall and master's degree from what was then Mankato State University. He has taught at Ridgewater 19 years.

"We are very pleased for Shawn," and for Balay, said Ridgewater President Douglas Allen. "I think it speaks to the quality of our faculty overall."

Mueske is the first Ridgewater instructor to receive the Educator of the Year award, Allen said. "It's a great honor, especially coming on the heels of the Fulbright." Ridgewater history instructor Sam Nelson was recently named a Fulbright Scholar and will teach at a Russian university for a year.

Mueske's classes include biology, microbiology and applied structural genomics. He teams with Dr. John Benson to teach a forensics class. Several of the courses would be considered junior- or senior-level courses at a four-year university, he said.

Mueske collaborates with faculty at other colleges and was a leader in developing the Science Express, a mobile science lab that travels to middle schools and high schools to provide higher level lab experiences.

He spearheaded a program that led to undergraduate research projects. He said he has appreciated the administration's support of new ideas.

"Every day I have to win the battle of relevancy," he said.

He uses pop culture references, role playing and student projects to keep students engaged in classes, he said. He uses examples from their everyday lives to keep things relevant.

In a microbiology class last week, he talked about the everyday measures humans take to kill bacteria in foods. The methods included boiling and pasteurizing, and he told them everyone has a hot air sterilization system at home -- an oven.

He showed them a photo of the water sterilization filter he uses when camping and told stories about his experiences with it that included clogging a filter with algae.

After class, several of his students talked about the class.

"He definitely makes his classes fun," said Jed Smith, 20, of Atwater. "He's down to earth and normal."

"He changed my major, for sure," said Tiana Barsness, 19, of Glenwood. She was going to major in health sciences, and now plans a double major with biology.

For Micah Driscoll, 39, a nursing student, the class is enjoyable but difficult. "He's not a pushover," he said. "I enjoy that not everything is just lecture," and that it shows them ways that microbiology relates to their everyday lives.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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