By Lynn Champion
On Saturday, April 6, Theresa Lee, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, presented an award on behalf of the college to Jeffrey Kovac, professor of chemistry, acknowledging his extraordinary contributions to pre-collegiate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in the state of Tennessee through his long and distinguished service as director of the Tennessee Governor’s Schools for Sciences and Engineering (1994–2012) and Tennessee Science Olympiad State Tournament (2008–2012).
Lee said Kovac’s talents as an educator in the undergraduate and graduate classrooms found expression beyond the traditional university classroom through his leadership of these two programs designed to educate pre-collegiate students. At a time when improving STEM education has become both a state and national priority, Kovac has been a leader in the college and the university in STEM education and successfully led these two important statewide STEM educational initiatives for a number of years.
“Jeff’s leadership of these programs has produced remarkable outcomes and touched many students,” Lee said. “We are very grateful for his service on behalf of the college.”
As director of the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering, Kovac designed an appropriate curriculum and complementary co-curricular activities for 100–150 of Tennessee’s best and brightest students each year, recruiting appropriate faculty instructors and teaching at least one seminar himself. His steadfast commitment to educational excellence, passionate advocacy for pre-collegiate education, skillful negotiation, and documentation of student success enabled the university to obtain a total of $4,424,058 in funds and contracts to sponsor the program and provided a high-quality academic educational experience for more than 2,000 talented Tennessee high school students. One scholarly publication stems from his work in pre-collegiate education: Scientific Ethics for High School Students, co-authored with P. A. Frase and L. M. Barden.
In 2009, Kovac was invited to direct the Tennessee Science Olympiad State Tournament. For each year that he served as director, Kovac recruited and trained dozens of event coordinators and more than fifty student volunteers for the one-day event that brought thirty-six teams of middle school and high school students to campus to compete in twenty-three individual events per division. About 1,000 students participated each year. Kovac’s knowledge of pre-collegiate education and administrative experience was a critical factor in the planning and execution of highly successful tournaments throughout his tenure as director.
Science Olympiad is a powerful program for introducing middle and high school students to science and engineering concepts and their applications through competitive events, but the number of schools in Tennessee that participate is much smaller than in comparable states. As a member of the Tennessee Science Olympiad Board of Directors, Kovac took a leadership role on the board to expand participation by schools in Tennessee.
Kovac earned a PhD in 1974 from Yale University. After completing two years as a postdoctoral research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1976. In the course of his career here, he earned tenure and then promotion to full professor and has become an all-around successful member of the academic community. His outstanding academic career has been an integration of his excellence in research, teaching (including advising and mentoring students), and outreach and public service. While serving as the director of the undergraduate instructional program in the Department of Chemistry and carrying a regular faculty load, he has maintained an active program of scholarship that includes the publication of six books, eight chapters of books, more than seventy articles, and more than fifty book reviews.
Numerous campus awards acknowledge his success in the university’s missions of teaching, research, and outreach. Among the awards he has received are the College of Arts and Sciences Advising Services Award, the College of Arts and Sciences Academic Outreach Award, and the College of Arts and Sciences Senior Faculty Teaching Award. At the campus level, he has been awarded the Chancellor’s Citation for Excellence in Teaching, the L. R. Hesler Award for Superior Teaching and Outstanding Service, the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Advising, the Chancellor’s Award for Academic Outreach and Engagement, and the University Honors Program Outstanding Service Award.