Published: Dec. 11, 2020

Bill Penuel headshotWilliam Penuel has been named Distinguished Professor, the highest honor for faculty bestowed by the University of Colorado. Only 118 professors across all four CU campuses hold this title, which recognizes faculty members’ outstanding contributions to their academic disciplines. 

Penuel is professor of learning sciences and human development in the School of Education and the Institute of Cognitive Science, and he is an influential scholar in the learning sciences, an interdisciplinary field that includes cognitive science, computer science, educational psychology, anthropology and applied linguistics. Penuel is part of a 12-person group of newly named Distinguished Professors, who were reviewed by a systemwide advisory board of Distinguished Professors, recommended to the University of Colorado President and considered and approved by the Board of Regents.

“The breadth and depth of Professor Penuel’s contributions to the fields of learning science, innovative and consequential research methodologies, curriculum and instructional design, among other areas, along with the impact of his work on scholarly research and practice, is exceptional,” said Kathy Schultz, Dean of the School of Education. “As a school and university, we are extremely fortunate to have Professor Penuel on our faculty.”

Schultz and an extensive team of colleagues, current and former students, and school partners collectively nominated Penuel and demonstrated the many ways he exhibits the qualities of Distinguished Professors, such as prominent scholarly work, excellence in the promotion of student learning, and outstanding leadership and service.

Penuel came to CU Boulder in 2011, and his research focuses on teacher learning and organizational processes that affect how school curricula are enacted and educational policies are implemented. Centrally focused on educational equity, his work spans across three dimensions: equitable implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards; creating inclusive classroom cultures that attend to students’ affective experiences and where all students have authority for constructing knowledge together; and connecting teaching to the interests, experiences, and identities of learners.

Penuel’s groundbreaking work, including pioneering the development of Design-Based Implementation Research and Research-Practice Partnerships, has fundamentally altered instructional interventions and school improvement.

“When we recruited Professor Penuel to CU a decade ago, he was already an eminent and highly productive scholar,” said Lorrie Shepard, former Dean of the School of Education and Distinguished Professor. “Since then, he has, quite literally, changed the face of educational research by reconceptualizing how research interventions in schools should be designed and studied to better attend to equity and to ensure long-term improvement. He is a person of great integrity, whose principled research is deeply integrated with his teaching, mentorship, and service.”

Government agencies and philanthropic organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, Institute of Education Services, William T. Grant Foundation, and more, have shifted research funding priorities based on Penuel’s and partners’ innovative research design work.

Nationally and internationally, Penuel has been recognized as fellow of the American Educational Research Association, the International Society for Design and Development in Education, and the International Society of the Learning Sciences, and most recently, he was elected to the National Academy of Education in 2019. 

National colleagues, foundations, school partners, and state education leaders often seek Penuel’s leadership at workshops, keynote addresses, and consultation on projects. Through sustained, long-term partnerships and the co-design process, where researchers and teachers collaboratively designing curriculum together, Penuel prioritizes teacher involvement and knowledge. His decade-long partnership with Denver Public Schools has resulted in approximately 11,000 students benefiting from new forms of teacher learning and 235 science educators directly engaging in professional learning experiences with him.

“By including teachers at the table when designing materials and tools, Dr. Penuel ensures they are developed with the agency of those who work closest with students,” said Douglas Watkins, High School Science Curriculum Specialist with Denver Public Schools and long-time collaborator with Penuel. “Teacher input and expertise is highly valued by Dr. Penuel and incorporated into material and tool design.”

Another partner, Tiffany Neill, now deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the state of Oklahoma and past president of the Council of State Science Supervisors, said Penuel ushered in a new way of thinking partnerships between researchers and practitioners. Their work on the Advancing Coherent and Equitable Systems of Science Education (ACESSE) project has reached all 50 states, Washington D.C., and U.S. territories in efforts to co-design and test resources that promote more equitable state systems of science education.

“He values the voice of students, teachers, and leaders alike, bolstering their confidence through a genuine engagement, demonstrating respect in the way he listens, seeks to understand their struggles and goals, and humbly supports them in constructing an ambitious vision for their work,” Neill said.

Many current and former students also demonstrated how Penuel provides a steady source of encouragement and access to opportunities for future education scholars. A highly sought-after mentor to graduate students and colleagues alike, Penuel is a respected teacher, who is known for thoughtful course design and modeling care and compassion. 

“As a first-generation college student, I was unfamiliar with academia and not sure what to expect from a doctoral program,” said Robbin Riedy, an advisee and doctoral student in learning sciences and human development. “There were many times where I began to doubt myself, and whether or not I was cut out to become a researcher. During those times, Professor Penuel would assure me of my research skills and encourage me by reiterating that I have important knowledge and insights to offer the field.”