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Teaching Outside The Classroom

June 23, 2002

Mark Miester
Phone: 865-5714

mark@tulane.edu

One focuses on the development of children in high-risk environments or with behavior disorders, the other on the contingencies of environmental and criminal law. Yet Stacy Overstreet and Oliver Houck, recipients of this year's President's Awards for Excellence in Teaching, share a common philosophy: involvement. Both believe strongly in engaging students with both the subject matter and the community.

"It's great to have knowledge and to try to apply it, but it's also important to then critically examine whether it fits," says Overstreet. "The only way to do that is to get out of the classroom and consciously engage in service learning or participate in research where you have to be very aware of the assumptions you're making."

"The worst thing you can do to teach is to lecture," Houck adds. "I had that kind of teaching when I went to college. I guess I've been fighting that teaching model ever since I started teaching, so the principle is involvement."

Overstreet, associate professor of psychology, and Houck, professor of law, received the 2002 presidential awards for teaching excellence at last month's commencement ceremony in the Superdome. Overstreet received the award for undergraduate teaching and Houck received the award for graduate and professional school teaching.

Each received a medal designed by professor emeritus Franklin Adams and a $5,000 prize. A 1990 graduate of the University of New Orleans, Overstreet earned her PhD in school psychology from Tulane in 1995 after completing a predoctoral internship in pediatric psychology at the University of Maryland Medical School.

Since joining the Tulane faculty as visiting assistant professor of psychology in 1995, she has received the Mortar Board Salute for Excellence in Teaching four times. In addition to graduate-level courses in school psychology, Overstreet has taught abnormal child psychology, urban child development and childhood behavior disorders at the undergraduate level. Almost all her undergraduate courses have involved service-learning components.

"My students are learning about childhood disorders and then they work in special-education classrooms with kids who have some of the disorders they've been learning about," Overstreet says. "Most of the research that's been done in psychology has been done on white middle-class subjects, and yet the whole world uses the constructs we've defined using that population. So when you work in ethnically diverse communities--or in New Orleans when we work with African-American kids and families in schools--the application of the knowledge doesn't always fit. That's the important part of active learning and getting outside classroom walls."

Houck earned his bachelor's degree in English from Harvard in 1960 and his JD from Georgetown in 1967. From 1968 to 1971, he served as assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and from 1971 to 1981 he worked for the National Wildlife Federation, eventually serving as the organization's vice president for conservation and education.

In 1981, he joined the faculty of the law school, where he helped to establish the environmental law program, which today ranks among the top 10 such programs in the country.

"My first environmental law class was nine students," he recalls. "Now, in the base course we have 80."

Houck's career, which spans the seemingly disparate areas of criminal and environmental law, is poised on a fundamental belief. "The value system that I find important and attractive is one that goes back to something so corny it's almost unspeakable," Houck says. "You leave the world a better place. So when I was fighting crime I was convinced I was leaving the world a better place, and when I'm fighting polluters I'm convinced I'm leaving the world a better place. Both depend on public law and so that's where my interest has been and that's where I've taught here at Tulane."

At Tulane, Houck says students become involved in myriad ways. In addition to environmental law classes, students gain experience through the environmental law clinic, a student-written journal, an institute and an annual conference.

"To say nothing of the trips we take with the students," he adds. "We go down for three days at a research facility in Cocodrie, La., and come out knowing how the coastal zone works. It helps them understand what the challenges are in this field of law. The program is far more than the classroom."

The most satisfying aspect of his job, Houck says, isn't necessarily the success of individual classes, students or pieces of research. Rather, it's hearing from students six or seven years removed who now hold policy-making positions with state agencies, the EPA or even foreign nations.

"They say that the parent is to the child as the bow is to the arrow," Houck says. "That's also true with teaching. We have students out there doing things in their countries or states that are ahead of where the law is. They're actually lawmakers. To think that you contributed to that person's life, that's amazing."

Mark Miester may be reached at mark@tulane.edu

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