By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Dedicated instructor. Amazing faculty member. First-rate teacher-scholar. Exemplary role model.
These are some of the many superlatives students and colleagues use to describe Janet Steele.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney biology professor was recognized Friday with the Leland Holdt/Security Mutual Life Distinguished Faculty Award. Presented each year during winter commencement, UNK’s most prestigious faculty award honors an individual for their contributions in teaching, research and service. The award, which also honors UNK alumnus Leland Holdt and commemorates his many years of leadership at Security Mutual Life, comes with a $5,000 stipend.
A UNK faculty member since 1993, Steele teaches undergraduate and graduate courses, including the anatomy and physiology class taken by students pursuing health care careers.
“Janet’s classes are not easy, but she puts a lot of time into preparing for them and creating an educational environment in which all students can be successful,” UNK biology professors Kim Carlson and Julie Shaffer wrote in their nomination letter.
The department co-chairs called Steele “arguably one of the best instructors at UNK,” noting her use of active learning strategies and peer-to-peer support systems to increase student engagement and comprehension.
“Students understand why the class must be rigorous and appreciate all of the things she does to help them. They can really tell that she cares about their learning and success,” Carlson and Shaffer stated.
Four current and former UNK students submitted letters in support of Steele’s nomination for the award, and they all contained the same glowing remarks.
Blase Rokusek graduated from UNK in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology and he’s currently enrolled in the biology master’s degree program. He called Steele “one of the best teachers I have ever had.”
“Dr. Steele has a way of making the material real,” he wrote. “An abstract concept becomes a real-life patient during her lectures. She shows her students that what they are learning is important and applicable, all while making extremely complex concepts accessible.”
After completing the anatomy and physiology course, Rokusek served as a supplemental instruction leader, working alongside Steele to ensure other students were learning effectively.
“From this backstage look at the course, I was able to see just how much Dr. Steele cares about the success of her students,” he stated. “She is constantly thinking of ways to make her teaching better and ever searching for new approaches to teaching. Dr. Steele puts incredible amounts of effort into her teaching, and her students gain so much because of that.”
Charlie Bicak, who recently retired as senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, pointed to the high rates at which UNK health science students are accepted into clinical programs and professional schools as proof of Steele’s impact.
“The overriding attribute that Janet brings to her work is an authentic dedication to student success,” he stated. “She cares in a way that, frankly, humbles me.”
There are more than 750 current UNK students interested in health care, and nearly all of them will take one of Steele’s classes.
“Janet teaches them not only the basic anatomy and physiology, but also how to apply the information to disease and clinical situations. This level of critical thinking and application of knowledge ensures UNK students are very well prepared for professional training in the health sciences,” Peggy Abels, director of UNK Health Sciences, wrote.
In addition to her classroom responsibilities, Steele advises biology majors and pre-health students, mentors first-year faculty and serves as director of the online STEM education and health science master’s programs. She was chair of the biology department in 2015-16, associate dean in the Office of Graduate Studies and Research in 2017-18, interim chair of the department of physics and astronomy from fall 2018 to fall 2020 and interim co-chair of the department of English in 2021-22.
Steele has been part of numerous campus and University of Nebraska System committees; she’s been the official scorekeeper for Loper home volleyball matches since 1993; and she presents during health science camps and workshops for middle and high school students.
“Janet has been a strong advocate for health sciences and a mentor for many of our students,” Abels stated. “She is willing to go above and beyond her teaching duties in the classroom to assist us with activities, sessions in summer camps and seminars for students interested in health care. Her influence in teaching and engaging students goes well beyond the classroom.”
Carlson and Shaffer know Steele as someone who “has the heart of a servant” and never says “no” when help is needed.
“Janet is truly the go-to person for any task that any department or any committee wants to undertake,” they wrote. “Service is part of who she is, whether it is a student in need or a task force that needs a volunteer. Very few people help as much as Janet.”
Steele’s research complements her teaching, focusing on topics such as cardiovascular and renal system stress and exercise and diabetes. She has 16 publications in academic journals, along with 36 abstracts and presentations, and her research has received grants totaling more than $1.3 million. She’s also a manuscript reviewer for the Journal of Biological Education.
Steele has mentored countless undergraduate and graduate student researchers, including Rokusek, who worked with her on a study showing the effectiveness of the supplemental instruction she implemented. Their results were published in Human Anatomy and Physiology Society Educator.
“Not only is this research valuable to UNK, but it is also valuable to the collegiate teaching community at large. Dr. Steele has a strong track record within education research, helping teachers find new and better ways to instruct their students,” Rokusek wrote. “I am incredibly thankful to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Steele on the project, because yet again I found myself learning so much from her.”
Here’s what others had to say about professor Janet Steele and her impact at UNK:
“Dr. Steele is one of the most engaged, committed, energetic, creative, service-oriented and involved professors I have had. Her students are more than just students to her; they are her friends and mentees. Every student who has had her as an instructor is uniquely privileged.” – UNK graduate Mary Ann Bailey
“Dr. Steele is a first-rate teacher-scholar. Her research is related to her classroom teaching. For decades, her anatomy and physiology students have gone on to find great success in the health professional fields and graduate programs. Former students often attribute their success from a variety of medical and graduate files to Dr. Steele.” – Peter Longo, UNK political science professor and associate vice chancellor for academic and student affairs
“Here at UNK, I truly believe we are blessed with some of the best faculty anywhere in higher education. A high level of communication, approachability and caring is so common that it becomes easy for a student to take that for granted. Despite this, in a community filled with amazing teachers, Dr. Steele shines above the rest. Her ability to stand out amongst the awesome faculty here at UNK speaks for itself. Although Dr. Steele is an amazing professor, what really sets her apart is how much effort she puts in to be there for students. Dr. Steele is a staple in the UNK community, and she is truly one of the best instructors UNK has to offer.” – Zach Zavodny, UNK pre-medical student and student body vice president