James Madison University

Graduate Psychology Professor Wins Goodman Faculty Endowment Award

By: Lori News
Posted: April 3, 2015

Dr. Debbie Sturm, an Assistant Professor in Graduate Psychology, was awarded the Goodman Faculty Endowment Award for her excellence in teaching, scholarly activity and curriculum development.

PHOTO:Debbie Sturm

Every year the award is presented to full-time instructional faculty members with three to five years of service at JMU. They must possess a record of excellence in any of the following: teaching and/or scholarly activity, curriculum development, technology enhancements, professional development initiatives, and integration of teaching and scholarship to benefit the student learning process.

While only in her fourth year at the university, Sturm has contributed to the growth and learning of both undergraduate and graduate students. She has taught multiple graduate level counseling courses, and has also recently developed a new doctoral level course titled Leadership and Advocacy in Counselor Education. Her undergraduate teaching includes HON 100: Honors Seminar Teaching Assistant Supervision and a new course, HON 200: The Psychology of Sustainability and Connection to the Natural World. This honors seminar is a six-credit, study abroad course in Malta and Sicily taught during the May semester.

PHOTO: Malta

Sturm’s deep connection with Malta began when she first visited her cousins in the beautiful, Mediterranean island with her family while in college. Coming from a Maltese family, she always knew it was a unique and special place. It wasn’t until she visited Malta again this past summer that she began to fully embrace this part of her history.

“My students and I have been talking about biophilia, which is this deep, cellular or genetic connection with nature and I think that was the first time that I felt that [Malta] was my place,” Sturm explained.

Within a few weeks of being at JMU, Sturm realized she wanted to do a study abroad trip in Malta after learning that JMU had offered trips to Malta for the ISAT and IdLS programs in the past. She then spent the next few semesters developing the trip and determining whether it would be offered to undergraduate or graduate students. When Sturm moved into Shenandoah Hall as Faculty Member in Residence in fall 2013 and also became JMU’s Honors Program Liaison, she realized she was interested in taking honors students to Malta.

“So I started putting the trip together,” Sturm said. “I knew I wanted to work with honors undergraduate students, I knew I wanted to carry my nature connection work forward, and I knew I wanted it to go across disciplines so that every discipline felt really welcome.”

As a result, 16 undergraduate students with different majors including, psychology, biology, chemistry and justice studies, have been meeting every other week this spring semester leading up to the trip in May. The students have been discussing how a personal connection to the natural world influences positive environmental attitude, and therefore environmental action. They also look at the emotional, cognitive and behavioral relationships to different sides of environment issues and what that relates and connects to.

Robin Anderson, Psy.D., the department head of Graduate Psychology nominated Sturm for the Goodman Faculty Endowment Award. “The integration of her scholarship related to nature and sustainability with her teaching benefits the student-learning process, while also supporting the values of the University. She is a tireless contributor to student learning and development who literally does it all,” she said.

Sturm also plays a role in JMU’s Counseling and Psychological Services program (CAPS) working mostly with student clients, which she says helps keep her connected. In addition, she is involved in the JMU Campus Coalition Against Sexual Assault and has an interest in furthering faculty understanding of Title IX and the needs of survivors.

Currently, Sturm is working towards publishing a clinician’s book on nature, sustainability and counseling. It demonstrates how the blending of nature and counseling could benefit the patient’s quality of life. After introducing this topic to her classes, some clinical mental health students and doctoral students became interested in working further on the book with Sturm.

“I’ve also brought nature connection into some of my counseling classes and I’m just in awe that the more I study it, the more I realize how incredibly important it is, and what a disservice we do to ourselves by disconnecting from the natural world,” Sturm explained. “Even a little connection with nature makes a big difference, so I weave it into my classes and try to give my students experiences in nature.”