Atherton Teaching Award: Joe Cuiffi takes a new approach to student success

2024 awards will be announced in April 2024; nominations are accepted year-round
Joseph Cuiffi, assistant teaching professor and program coordinator of electro-mechanical engineering technology

Joe Cuiffi earned the George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Credit: Rebecca Dietrich

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Joe Cuiffi works to foster confidence in problem-solving among his electro-mechanical engineering technology students. 

The assistant teaching professor at Penn State New Kensington said his teaching style is centered around clarity and respect, starting with the basics and moving to real-world situations and expectations. He said that a relationship and ability to converse with students are vital components of his method. 

“It is important for me to develop a rapport with my students so that they see the learning environment as a conversation and something they control,” Cuiffi said. 

For his unique approach and careful attention to students’ understanding, Cuiffi was one of six Penn State faculty members selected for the 2023 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching. Several of Cuiffi’s students expressed their appreciation for his role in their success and preparedness for the outside world.  

“Throughout my college journey,” wrote one student, “he encouraged me to keep my options open and mentored me in a way that set me up for success.” 

Another student nominator said Cuiffi strategically divides class time into a questioning portion, problem-solving through examples, and students completing problems themselves. The same student noted Cuiffi’s flexibility and schedule guide, which has helped to organize and simplify recommended courses and scheduling. 

“Even if a student is out of sync with his recommended approach, Dr. Cuiffi is more than willing to go out of his way to make sure his students will graduate on time and succeed.” 

Cuiffi said that as a former student at a Penn State Commonwealth Campus, he feels a responsibility to support students in their pursuits and a strong motivation to continue to grow as an educator. 

“Undergraduate teaching requires a lot of work, often underestimated, and it is generally a challenge to know if one is doing a ‘good job,’” Cuiffi said. “This award provides meaningful validation from students and colleagues of the effort and it gives visibility and recognition to those within Penn State who are dedicated to helping undergraduate students succeed.”  

About the George W. Atherton Award and how to nominate  

The George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching is awarded each year to six tenure-line, teaching or clinical instructors from across the University who have demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching. The award comes with a $2,500 cash prize.   

Anyone in the Penn State community or beyond can nominate an instructor for one of the undergraduate teaching awards by completing a form on the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence website, which also lists eligibility criteria. Nominees who are chosen to advance in the selection process are then asked to provide supporting documents such as recommendation letters and a teaching philosophy.    

The 2024 awards will be announced in April 2024 based on nominations submitted prior to June 30, 2023. Nominations are accepted year-round, and those submitted before June 30, 2024, will be considered for the 2025 awards.