Skip to main content

Geography professor wins national award for mentoring research students

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Dr. Douglas Faulkner, professor of geography, and Grace Bowe, an environmental studies major, examine the banks of western Wisconsin rivers as part of a faculty-undergraduate student research project. Faulkner is receiving a national award for his excellence in mentoring undergraduate research students. Bowe says her professor has helped her discover a passion for studying water and water resources. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor is being recognized nationally for his commitment to and excellence in mentoring undergraduate student researchers.

Dr. Douglas Faulkner, professor of geography, is the recipient of the 2022 Faculty Mentor Award by the Geosciences Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research.

“This national award recognizes the outstanding mentoring Dr. Faulkner provides undergraduate students engaged in student-faculty collaborative research,” says Dr. Erica Benson, interim director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) at UW-Eau Claire. “Moreover, it is a testament to the reputation of UW-Eau Claire as a leader in undergraduate research.”

Saying his “head is still spinning” from learning about the “totally unexpected” award, Faulkner says he is “honored beyond words” to be recognized for the mentoring work he does with his students.

Faulkner, who has devoted his career to undergraduate education, says he considers mentoring students in research to be critical to his work as an educator because it provides students with a transformative learning experience.

“Mentoring undergraduate researchers, while it can be trying, is tremendously fulfilling work,” Faulkner says. “It encapsulates all that I seek to do as an educator, which is to leave a legacy of students more fully educated than they otherwise would’ve been.

“I see this award as a sign — a very large, unexpected, flabbergasting sign — that my mentoring has had the effect I hoped it would have.”

Grace Bowe, who will graduate in spring 2024 with a degree in environmental geography and a certificate in water resources, is among the Blugolds who say working on research with Faulkner has been life changing.

As a member of Faulkner’s research team, the Chippewa Falls native spent her summer surveying cut banks along the Red Cedar River and the Eau Claire River, which she says was an “amazing experience” and an incredible learning opportunity.

“Dr. Faulkner is a seemingly endless source of knowledge,” Bowe says. “Every day that I spent in the field and in class with Dr. Faulkner, I learned something new. As a mentor, he will go above and beyond to make sure you're constantly learning and thriving at UWEC.”

Faulkner says his goal is that students come away from their research experiences with new skills, a greater confidence in their intellectual abilities and a more positive sense of self.

He also hopes his student researchers become “keener and more curious observers,” and that they come to realize that they can be “creators of knowledge and not mere consumers of it.”

“Helping students develop in these ways is why this work is important to me,” Faulkner says of mentoring student researchers.

Bowe says the research project is giving her the skills, knowledge and experiences she’ll need to be successful in her future career, as well as reassuring her that she’s following the right academic path.

While she learned about the rivers and their fluvial geomorphology from the research project, it “also gave me a newfound passion for studying water and water resources,” Bowe says, noting that she’s now even more excited to explore future careers surrounding fluvial studies.

Bowe was drawn to environmental geography because she’s “always wanted to have a job where I am actively helping the good of humanity.” Her hope, she says, is that she can use her degree to “help others while also helping the environment.”

“Hopefully, through this career, I can share my love for the environment with others and actively work to help our climate,” says Bowe, who hopes to work for the National Park Service after graduation.

Brittney Winter, an environmental geography major from Abrams who will graduate in May 2023, also says it was Faulkner’s teaching and mentoring that helped her discover her passion for environmental geography. She came to campus uncertain about a major but “immediately fell in love with geography” after taking a geography class as a freshman.

“Dr. Faulkner was one of my first geography professors my freshman year, and he was always looking to make class fun and interesting for everyone, even those who were not a declared geography major,” Winter says. “The next semester, I declared my major in geography, and through digging deeper into the field, I officially became an environmental geographer by the end of my sophomore year.”

Winter also joined Faulkner’s research team, which is investigating terraces along the Red Cedar and Eau Claire rivers. The researchers examine the sediment, soils and sands along the banks of the rivers to better understand the waterways’ natural behaviors. They then use their understanding of the rivers’ behaviors to predict future changes and patterns of the rivers, she says.

“This research is building my resume, giving me career and field experience, and helping me make connections with colleagues from around the Midwest,” Winter says. “I also spent most of my summer kayaking up and down some of Wisconsin’s most beautiful rivers, experiencing the outdoors in ways I never imagined.”

Faulkner’s love for teaching and mentoring is reflected in his “passion for exploring and learning” and in his efforts to offer his students once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunities, Winter says.

“He’s always looking to make learning about geography fun and enjoyable, which makes working in the field with him so rewarding,” Winter says.

Faulkner cares deeply about the environment and the planet, which has inspired her to think about the world and her own career a little differently, Winter says.

“Working with Dr. Faulkner has helped me better grasp my love for the outdoors, getting my hands dirty, and has shown me that I am capable of anything I put my mind to,” Winter says. “It has been such an amazing opportunity, and has taught me a lot about myself, others and about the planet. It’s all thanks to having Dr. Faulkner guide me through these experiences.”

After graduation, Winter hopes to find a job with the Department of Natural Resources that focuses on river or park restoration, or to work as a ranger in a national park.

Faulkner — who also won UW-Eau Claire’s Excellence in Mentoring award in 2017 — credits ORSP, UW-Eau Claire and its students for making it possible for faculty to involve undergraduate students in meaningful, real-world research.

Dedicated faculty and staff, “curious and engaged” Blugolds and a student body that supports using differential tuition dollars for research across disciplines all have helped UW-Eau Claire establish itself as a national leader in undergraduate student research, Faulkner says.

“While this award has my name on it, I see it as recognition of the university and its commitment to the liberal education of undergraduates, especially through the high-impact practice of undergraduate research,” Faulkner says.