Teacher:

Laura Guertin.

School:

Penn State Brandywine, where she is an associate professor of earth science.

What she has done:

Guertin, 37, of Media, initiated the 40 Acts of Kindness and Civic Engagement program in honor of the college's 40th anniversary this year.

The program highlights and unifies some of the service projects organized on campus. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members have completed more than 20 acts so far, such as collecting pull tabs for Ronald McDonald House Charities, purchasing holiday presents for families, inviting speakers to discuss climate change, and displaying 12-by-12-foot panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the campus gymnasium.

For more information on the program, visit

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Guertin, who has a doctorate in marine geology and geophysics, is in her seventh year at Penn State. She is also coordinator of the honors program, and co-chair of the academic minor on civic and community engagement.

Combining kindness with civic engagement:

"It's fine to go pick up trash along the Schuylkill River, but why does the trash get there every time?," Guertin said. "And how do you stop the trash from building up? And how do we change the water quality? So the idea is to try to help students now take action and make decisions for a sustained change.

"Why do we have to have food drives every year? Why can't we solve the hunger issue? . . . Not that we want them to do less volunteering, but you keep doing these quick Band-Aid fixes, and there's got to be some way that you can make permanent sustained change."

Connecting the two through 40 Acts:

"It's almost a much more unified view. Because some people, your lecture series are over here and your volunteering is over here. But it really is bringing the idea that all of this can make a difference and all of it can make an impact. And it really highlights and brings it to the forefront."

Covering the spread:

"We actually do more than 40 each year, but we just thought it would be nice to highlight 40 of them.

Forty in four:

"In September, one of our big ones was trying to create 40 pillowcases in four hours. And that was for ConKerr Cancer, a local volunteer organization that sews brightly colored pillow cases for children in hospitals.

"And so our mission was to get enough people on campus. And people brought in their sewing machines. And we just cut and sewed, and cut and sewed. And we actually made 50, instead of 40. I was thrilled with that."

Favorite part:

"It's been such a range of activities, which is nice. We've been working to help senior citizens. We're working to help kids. We're working to help families. Like with the Giving Tree project we just had. So what's rewarding for me is just the diversity of groups that we're helping out."

Going back to the founders:

"If you go back to Thomas Jefferson, the whole reason the education system was started was to create engaged citizens that could promote this concept of democracy. It's not done as much now, though.

"Like the town hall meetings where people would come together and talk about issues and they would vote on them. And people had a voice, and [with] that, they could affect change. And so those are some of things we're trying to get back to, because a lot of that's lost."

T-Rex and helping hands:

"For my dinosaur class, one of the projects I had my students do is they create dinosaur-themed toy kits that go to the Ronald McDonald House. The kids that are at the Ronald McDonald House, they're at their home away from home because they're getting hospital treatments and such. So they're not at school. So this way, they're getting a letter written by a college student that's teaching them about dinosaurs. And they now have dinosaur toys to play with."

The new cool:

"Now it's cool. It's not like, 'Oh, the geeks. Oh, look at them.' Now, it's a cool thing to do. People are proud of volunteering and working in their communities. And I hope that grows and it continues even further."

Why the attitude change:

"Part of it, I would say, is when high schools started requiring volunteering for graduation. Because at the very beginning, I think when they required it, students were like, 'Ugh. We have to do this.'

"And they weren't coming to it with the right attitude. But once you get a taste of volunteering, I think once you're exposed to it, you're like, 'Oh, hey, I feel pretty good doing that. And I did something that makes a difference.'

"And then it continues from there. So it's like you have to get that first bite. You have to get the foot through the door. And we're seeing so many more students coming to college having volunteering experience already."

What her chancellor says:

"First and foremost, she is incredibly engaging. . . . She makes the material understandable. She makes it exciting," said Sophia Wisniewska, Penn State Brandywine's chancellor. "We are very fortunate to have her. And if we could clone her, I would do it tomorrow."

- Ed Mahon