Innovation in Teaching Award

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The Cognella Innovation in Teaching Award for Family Science

We’re thrilled to announce the winners of the 2023 Cognella Innovation in Teaching Awards in partnership with the National Council for Family Relations! Congratulations to Dr. Olena Nesteruk of Montclair State University; Dr. Maria Carpiac of California State University, Long Beach; and Dr. Erica Jordan of the University of Houston. Read their profiles below to learn about their award-winning innovations!


Fostering Global Relationships and Inspiring International Compassion and Understanding

The judging panel was impressed with how Olena Nesteruk, a tenured faculty member in Family Science and Human Development at Montclair State University, created the Pen Pal Project in the wake of Russia invading Ukraine in February of 2022. Developed for students taking her Immigrant Families course, the project is a global cross-cultural initiative in partnership with teachers and children in a middle school in Chervonohrad, a small town in the western part of Ukraine. The program not only provides her students a glimpse into the lives of Ukrainian children, families, and communities who have been displaced and impacted by war, it also fosters meaningful relationships and greater cultural understanding among participants in both sides of the program.

Dr. Nesteruk developed this project with the goal of enhancing her students’ understanding of immigrant and refugee families and opening their worldview to global family issues. Her first cohort launched in Fall 2022, whereby each student was partnered with an eighth-grade Ukrainian student. Using emails, social media, and video calls, class time was dedicated toward fostering cross-cultural friendships as students learned about each other’s families, schools, hobbies, and dreams. Dr. Nesteruk established a Facebook group as well to share project updates, photos, and videos. When missile strikes on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure caused widespread power outages, the pen pals were unable to communicate virtually. Even so, the courageous Ukrainian cohort kept in touch by sending postcards to their American pen pals. During the holidays, the pen pals exchanged gifts; American students recorded a video with holiday greetings and mailed cards and gifts. This was especially meaningful since many Ukrainian neighborhoods were forced to cancel holiday celebrations or refrained from hanging decorations to conserve electricity. Upon conclusion of the semester-long project, Dr. Nesteruk presented students with a certificate of completion and encouraged participants to stay in touch with each other. The project was continued with a new cohort in Spring 2023.

This experience empowered Dr. Nesteruk’s students to think more broadly about advocacy and social action and engage in helping rather than watching from the sidelines during an act of war. This exposure is pivotal for students’ training to develop cultural competencies as they prepare for careers as helping professionals.

We believe Dr. Nesteruk’s innovation, compassion, and dedication to connecting her students with real-world opportunities and challenges will well prepare the next generation of Family Science professionals.

Olena Nesteruk is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family Science and Human Development at Montclair State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Human Ecology from Louisiana State University in 2007. Her main research focus is on the experiences of immigrant families over the life course and across generations in the United States. Specifically, she studies acculturation and intergenerational relationships; development of heritage language and ethnic identity; as well as transnational bereavement and immigrants in later life. Professor Nesteruk teaches courses on individual and family development, family theories, and immigrant families. Through various projects and initiatives, she has been engaging her students in work with communities, both local and international.  Dr. Nesteruk is committed to bridging classroom experiences with community engagement and scholarship. Olena is a member of the National Council on Family Relations, Teaching Family Science Association, and the Society for Cross-Cultural Research.


Energizing the Study of Aging through Connections to Pop Culture and Real-World Perspectives

The judging panel was impressed with how Maria Carpiac, a full professor and the director of the gerontology program at California State University, Long Beach, developed a course titled Women and Aging: Lessons from the Golden Girls, which has become very popular among students and breathed life into the study of gerontology at the university. In the course, Dr. Carpiac screens episodes of the classic TV show Golden Girls and then leverages its plot points and themes to initiate rich discussions about issues and topics related to aging, including ageism, stereotypes, elder abuse, dementia, end-of-life, and more.

In addition to including an engaging and effective framework, Dr. Carpiac utilizes a bevy of instructional methods, such as flipping the classroom, online instruction, connecting students with gerontology-minded people and other professionals in the field, scaffolding assignments, small group work, large group discussions, and making the class student-driven through cofacilitation of class sessions. Women and Aging: Lessons from the Golden Girls attracts a truly intergenerational group with students ranging in age from their early 20s through their late 60s. This diversity allows for meaningful and nuanced discussions across age groups. Dr. Carpiac mentioned the greatest compliment she received was when a student brought her mother to a class session (with permission), because she thought the content was so important. As a former student notes, “after taking an elective with Dr. Carpiac, it is not uncommon for students from other majors to pursue a certificate or a minor degree in gerontology.”

Dr. Carpiac’s research and advocacy extends beyond the classroom. Her use of high impact practices in the classroom (and online), supported by appropriate training, has allowed her to serve a very diverse group of students with varied learning needs, including those served by the Bob Murphy Access Center at the university. Her research on age friendly universities has brought attention to non-traditional learners on the CSULB campus, engaging students who have returned to school at older ages. Her research involving the evaluation of a holistic wellness program at an assisted living community has provided opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students to gain experience conducting assessments of older adults and collecting data for scientific research.

We’re thrilled to honor Dr. Carpiac’s dedication to advocacy, research, and teaching in the areas of aging and gerontology.

Maria Carpiac, Ph.D., MSW, CPG is the Director of the Gerontology Program, which entails teaching Masters-level courses and advising students in the Masters, Certificate and Minor programs. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology (1997), master’s degree (2001) and Ph.D. (2006) in Social Welfare with a specialization in older adults from UCLA. After teaching as a lecturer for the UCLA Aging Cluster Program for two years, she joined the faculty of the Gerontology Program at CSULB in 2007. Her past research focused on the nation’s 142 VA Home-Based Primary Care programs (HBPC) that serve more than 37,000 homebound veterans. Carpiac’s work helped home health agencies to better serve patients that may be at heightened risk during disasters by providing them with tools that improve the preparedness of these vulnerable individuals. Her current research focuses on the Age-Friendly University, which CSULB became in 2018. Dr. Carpiac serves as President for the California Council on Gerontology and Geriatrics (CCGG) and received CCGG’s Betty and James Birren Emerging Leader Award in 2011 for her strong record in teaching, research, and service. She is currently Vice President of CSULB’s Rho Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society and serves on the Governing Board of a local hospital.




Helping Students and Professionals Understand the Depth and Breadth of Career Paths in Family Science

Recognizing a need for career exploration resources to empower family science students, Erica Jordan, a clinical associate professor at the University of Houston, redesigned the Careers in Human Development and Family Sciences (HDFS) course and developed a corresponding website and podcast that can be accessed by anyone, ad-free and free of charge. These efforts have improved the online classroom environment, increased access for students, stimulated interest in family science, and served as a creative and innovative use of technology in teaching.

In particular, the judging panel was impressed with Dr. Jordan’s development of the HDFS Careers website and podcast, which (at the time of this award application) features 28 full-length interviews with professionals across the discipline, showcasing the depth and breadth of career paths in family science. The show has more than 10,000 show listeners from 19 countries around the world, demonstrating the impact of this resource not only for Dr. Jordan’s students but also for a broad range of students and professionals internationally. Visit the site here:

Dr. Jordan’s redesigned Careers in HDFS course has also immensely benefited students through its presentation of six specific units centered on students’ needs:

Unit 1: Begin With You! (Values, skills, resume, reflections)

Unit 2: The Field of Family Science (Historical, contemporary, and ethics readings)

Unit 3: Explore (Broad variety of jobs)

Unit 4: Dig Deeper (Analyzing specific jobs and graduate programs)

Unit 5: Connect (Professional Profile Project)

Unit 6: Plan (Communicating about family science and goals

Student testimonials say it all:

A recent student wrote, “After completing this course, I can honestly say that many things that were a blur or unclear about a career in HDFS are now clear… Thankfully, this course provided me with the right resources and assignments to push me to explore in depth what else is needed to achieve my career goal.”

Another wrote, “This is a must have professional development course, I feel like it should be a requirement. I gained so much…”

We’re thrilled to recognize Dr. Jordan’s innovative technological practices and her ability to help students and professionals understand the depth and breadth of career paths available to them in family science. 

Erica Jordan, Ph.D., CFLE (Certified Family Life Educator) is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies in the Department of Psychological, Health, and Learning Sciences at UH. She is a proud resident of UH, serving as the Faculty-in-Residence for Cougar Village I. She earned a Ph.D. in Psychology, specializing in Developmental Science, from the University of Alabama. She also earned a master’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies with specialties in both Child Development and Family Studies. Dr. Jordan is primarily engaged in undergraduate instruction and regularly teaches courses such as Development of Contemporary Families, Parent-Child Relationships, and Careers in Human Services. She is passionate about career options for students who wish to serve families and communities, often presenting on topics related to undergraduate career development and maintaining the HDFS Careers blog. She serves the community and her profession as the Secretary/Treasurer for the Family Policy Section of the National Council on Family Relations.