UF honors Special Ed’s Stephen Smith for mentoring Ph.D. students

Ask University of Florida special education doctoral candidate Donna Pitts to describe Stephen W. Smith, her faculty adviser and supervisor on two federal research grants on which she works as a research assistant, and she can give you two answers.

Professor Smith picks a shady spot on the front lawn of Norman Hall to review a spreadsheet with second-year doctoral students Michelle Cumming and Kristin Merrill.

Professor Smith picks a shady spot on the front lawn of Norman Hall to review a spreadsheet with second-year doctoral students Michelle Cumming and Kristin Merrill.

There’s her academic response: “Dr. Smith has been an encouragement at every step (of my doctoral experience), and is always available as teacher, trainer, mentor and adviser.”

And there’s the deeply personal side: “Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with cancer, and through the diagnosis, treatment and recovery Dr. Smith supported me with the utmost of compassion and encouragement. I am honored to have such an accomplished, caring and supportive individual as my adviser and committee chair.”

Pitts’ remarks are atypical in that her tough but triumphant battle with cancer figures into her UF doctoral experience. But many of Smith’s current and former students echo Pitts’ comments about the personal attention and compassion he imparts on his students.

That explains why Smith, one of the College of Education’s most prolific researchers and grant generators, is one of just six University of Florida professors to receive its 2014 Doctoral Mentoring Award. The campuswide honor recognizes excellence, innovation and effectiveness in mentoring doctoral students through their final dissertation projects. Each year, the UF Graduate School awards faculty recipients with $1,000 for use in supporting their doctoral students.

“I believe the most critical aspect of education is the development of indeplendent learners,” Smith said. “I find mentoring, advising and supporting doctoral students in their work the most challenging and satisfying part of my professional duties.”

Jean Crockett, director of the college’s School of Special Education, School Psychology and Early Childhood Studies, said Smith’s commitment to excellence in doctoral education “has been a significant factor” in the graduate program’s high national standing. (U.S. News and World Report rates UF’s special education program fifth nationally in its latest survey of America’s best graduate schools.)

In his 25-year academic career, Smith has generated more than $10 million through 26 research and training grants. For the past 16 years, his research has focused on developing new teaching tools and strategies to help students self-regulate their disruptive impulses and aggressive actions in the classroom.

At UF, Smith has received three teaching awards, a Top 100 UF Researcher award, and has served twice as a UF Distinguished Research Professor. He has served as a panel scientist for the federal Institute of Education Science’s social and behavioral education research division since 2008.

In 2012, his research advances earned him a prestigious three-year appointment to the college’s Irving and Rose Fien Endowed Professorship, which comes with money supporting doctoral student hires and technical assistance.

Over the years, Smith’s research and training projects have funded the dissertation studies of more than 30 Ph.D. students, not only in special education but also in school and educational psychology, research and evaluation methods, school counseling, and curriculum and instruction.

Smith draws his doctoral students into the research and teaching process—writing grant proposals, participating in team research meetings and working with senior faculty researchers on novel projects, presentations and research papers. A number of his students have received competitive scholarships and fellowships funding their dissertation research projects in collaboration with Smith’s investigations, and many often rise to leadership roles and learn to mentor each other.

In a letter supporting Smith for the mentoring award, UF second-year doctoral student Michelle Cumming cited Smith’s “infectious passion for the field.”

UF 2012 Ph.D. graduate Gregory Taylor, a special education instructor at the University of Ilinois, recalled  how in his first semester at UF Smith enlisted him to co-author a research manuscript that resulted in his first peer-reviewed academic publication. That experience, Taylor said, “infused confidence about my writing abilities that motivated me to complete my (doctorate) degree.”

Another of Smith’s former students, Christopher Van Loan, now in his sixth year as assistant professor at Appalachian State University, wrote: “As I have reflected back on my early career, I realize that his advice still guides me in most professional decisions.”

Smith believes successful mentors “must have the courage to hold students to high standards” and craft mentoring situations that enable students to acquire the skills they need.

“Mentors must have the insight to recognize the skill set that students bring to the table, and support them in developing their strengths while attending to some of their needs,” he said.

   SOURCE: Stephen W. Smith, UF College of Education, swsmith@coe.ufl.edu
   WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education; llansford@coe.ufl.edu