Service, Teaching, Research: Faculty awards presented to five honorees during convocation

KEARNEY – Three University of Nebraska at Kearney faculty members were recognized Wednesday with the prestigious Pratt-Heins Faculty Awards for their excellence in teaching, service and scholarship and research.

Dawn Mollenkopf, Greg Benson and Haishi Cao accepted the awards during the annual Faculty/Staff Convocation in the Fine Arts Recital Hall. Each honoree received a plaque and $2,000.

The Pratt-Heins Awards were established to memorialize the exemplary life and public service of Warren Pratt and his daughter Ruth E. Heins. Pratt was a businessman, civic leader and attorney in the Pratt, Hamer and Tye law firm in Kearney. Heins graduated from the Nebraska State Normal School at Kearney in 1914 and taught at Kearney Public Schools.

The Pratt-Heins Foundation has sponsored the awards for the past 42 years. They were presented by foundation trustee Tom Tye.

Dawn Mollenkopf
Pratt-Heins Award for Teaching

A UNK faculty member since 2003, Mollenkopf currently serves as a professor and co-chair in the Department of Teacher Education and program chair for the early childhood inclusive endorsement.

Throughout her distinguished career, she has demonstrated a superior level of teaching effectiveness in several ways, as evidenced by her consistently high student evaluations. Mollenkopf has developed innovative teaching techniques that she regularly applies in classroom, lab and field study settings.

She continually revises her classes to make them more effective and also has an important role in program creation and development. Mollenkopf created the early childhood inclusive endorsement – both the in-person and online versions – and developed all of the initial courses.

She has obtained more than $5 million in external funds to support early childhood professionals in the workforce and her collaboration with Central Community College resulted in area Head Start teachers being better prepared to work with special-needs children.

Mollenkopf was inducted into the UNK College of Education’s Academy for Teacher Education Excellence in 2012 and she’s received the UNK Creative Teaching Award three times. She’s also received the University of Nebraska System Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award, UNK College of Education Outstanding Service Award and David Stevenson Faculty Senate Distinguished Service Award.

Greg Benson
Pratt-Heins Award for Service

In his 15th year at UNK, Benson is a professor and coordinator of the supply chain management program.

Because of his knowledge, business experience and personal dedication, that program has experienced astounding success since Benson became coordinator 10 years ago. Supply chain management has grown from 15 students enrolled in 2014 to 80 students each of the past four years. Every student completes at least one internship prior to graduation, and the program boasts a 100% job placement rate, with 87% of students accepting positions in Nebraska.

The supply chain management program has received more than $200,000 in private donations from Nebraska companies since 2017, providing additional support and resources for students.

Beyond his responsibilities in the classroom, Benson spends over 200 hours each year developing, implementing and hosting activities and events that connect UNK students with employers and enhance their education. He’s received the College of Business and Technology’s Outstanding Faculty Award and UNK’s Outstanding Student Organization Adviser Award for his work with the student-led Supply Chain Management Organization.

In the community, Benson volunteers with Kearney Community Theatre and Kearney Area Animal Shelter and he’s an active member of Kearney eFree Church.

Prior to joining UNK, he spent nearly 30 years in the private sector, including management and high-level purchasing positions at Eaton and Precision Industries.

Haishi Cao
Pratt-Heins Award for Scholarship and Research

A professor in the Department of Chemistry, Cao has excelled in the teacher-mentor-researcher role since joining the UNK faculty in 2007.

His research focuses on synthesizing organic fluorescent molecules to better understand the role they play in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. By studying these molecules and their function within the body, scientists can develop treatments or even cures for these diseases.

Cao’s research has received more than $1 million in grant funding and he’s published 32 peer-reviewed articles in academic journals. He’s been the primary investigator on 14 published papers, many of which involved UNK students.

Additionally, he’s presented his research findings at more than 50 conferences and been cited over 1,200 times as an authoritative source in his field.

Cao was featured in UNK’s New Frontiers research magazine in 2016 and he’s received the Faculty Mentoring Award for his work with students.

Toni Hill
Faculty Award for Inclusive Excellence

In addition to the Pratt-Heins Awards, the inaugural Faculty Award for Inclusive Excellence was also presented during Wednesday’s event.

This award recognizes a UNK faculty member who demonstrates exemplary commitment to fostering a climate of inclusion and belonging for all students, faculty and staff across campus.

Chief Diversity Officer Maha Younes presented the honor to Toni Hill, who received $1,000 and a plaque.

A UNK faculty member since 2010, Hill serves as a professor and chair in the Department of Counseling, School Psychology and Family Science.

Described as a natural leader, tireless advocate and champion for those who need her, Hill is known for putting students first and promoting statewide changes to address shortcomings in higher education in the area of diversity and inclusion.

She has served as faculty in the Thompson Scholars Learning Community, mentored numerous undergraduate researchers from various disciplines and dedicated her time to committees and councils across UNK and the NU System, including the UNK Women’s, Gender and Ethnic Studies Committee, World Affairs Committee, Research Advisory Council, Undergraduate Research Council, Early Childhood Committee, Inclusive Excellence Leadership Council and UNMC External Diversity Committee.

Hill was selected to co-lead the Promoting At-Promise Student Success-Professional Learning Community Initiative at UNK in 2021 and appointed to serve as a NU DEAL Program Fellow last year.

She’s received the College of Business and Technology’s Mentoring of Undergraduate Research Award and her department’s Partnership Award for outstanding mentorship of undergraduate research.

Derek Boeckner
David Stevenson Faculty Senate Distinguished Service Award

Derek Boeckner, an associate professor and chair in the Department of Math and Statistics, received the David Stevenson Faculty Senate Distinguished Service Award.

Boeckner served as president of UNK Faculty Senate for 1 1/2 years, focusing on initiatives such as the transformation of eCampus to UNK Online, updating class attendance and finals week policies, enhancing campus inclusivity and addressing needed revisions in the Faculty Senate constitution.