URI language professor earns prestigious national award for the teaching of German culture

KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 8, 2021 – A University of Rhode Island professor has been honored by the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages with the Nelson Brooks Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Culture – one of the premier national awards in language education.

Niko Tracksdorf, of Needham, Massachusetts, an assistant professor of German and associate director of the German International Engineering Program, is editor and co-author of a new series of college textbooks and creator of numerous courses that integrate STEM subjects and inclusivity and diversity with the learning of German. The national council is an organization of language educators from elementary through graduate education, and the award recognizes an educator whose writings and teaching change the course of the profession.

“Each of his publications, presentations and courses reflect his dedication to enriching language study through STEM, equity and inclusion, interdisciplinary approaches, authentic resources and intercultural competence,” according to the awards committee. “His most recent publication, the co-authored textbook series ‘Impuls Deutsch: Intercultural, Interdisciplinary, Interactive,’ is a testament to his focus on German language study as a way to connect with others and build student knowledge of themselves and the world.”

“I’m very humbled and honored,” said Tracksdorf, who joined URI in 2017. “I was also surprised in a way; I was nominated as an assistant professor and most of the recipients have been of a higher rank.”

Tracksdorf’s textbook series, “Impuls Deutsch,” which includes textbooks, workbooks and teacher manuals for the first two years of college German, is published by Ernst Klett Sprachen, a German publisher that specializes in language education materials for German, English as a second language, French, Spanish and Italian. The books were published in 2019 and 2020. Among the series’ many co-authors is Damon Rarick, associate professor of German at URI.

The series teaches German from an updated perspective, moving away from such cliched topics as “Oktoberfest and pretzels and BMW cars,” Tracksdorf said. The textbooks provide an interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to teaching language and culture.

With a mix of co-authors and experts, the textbooks provide students diverse perspectives and include the stories of German-speaking populations not often heard from, such as those of the LGBTQ+, Jewish, Black and Turkish communities in such countries as Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Topics cover areas such as Afro-German poetry, an indigenous studies perspective of the Germans’ fascination with “cowboys and Indians,” and not only how to order a meal, but the science of molecular cuisine and sugar’s effects on the body.

“It’s a whole different approach from how many of us learned languages,” he said. “In the first year alone, over a hundred instructors in the U.S. have adopted the book. That’s a lot for German. In the first year, all these schools basically now teach German with the materials that a URI professor wrote. I think that’s what they recognized with this award.”

Tracksdorf came upon the idea for the textbook series while working toward his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut, where he taught German in the EUROTECH Program. With a bachelor’s degree in English and math from the Universität Duisburg-Essen in Germany, UConn felt he was ideal to teach language courses that blended STEM and German.

At UConn, he created many classes during which students learning German did so through STEM topics – courses he brought with him when he joined URI’s IEP. One such one-credit class explores roller coasters in which students study the physics of roller coasters, their popularity in Germany, visit an amusement park for a backstage tour of a roller coaster, all while enhancing their German language and culture chops.

“That’s what students are interested in,” he said of the interdisciplinary classes. “That’s why they take German and do internships in German-speaking countries. While they enjoy reading German literature, they really want to gain intercultural competence and learn to use the language in professional environments to get ready for jobs in a global marketplace”

The Nelson Brooks Award committee also praised Tracksdorf’s initiatives that show high school students the importance of German. In 2019, he worked with Cranston High School East teacher Baerbel Tully to start a German program at the school, only the second such program in the state. At URI, Tracksdorf organizes a German/STEM immersion day that brings about 80 high school students from around New England to campus.

“It’s not just recruitment for us, but also for the students to see that connections between STEM and German,” he said. “And maybe it makes them continue with German, even if it’s not at URI.”

While the number of students taking German nationally has been on the decline, URI has bucked the trend, doubling its number of German majors in the last 10 years and boasting the largest program in the country when it comes to the number of students majoring in the language.

“I think it has to do with the way we see learning the language,” Tracksdorf said. “We go beyond just offering students literature classes and learning the language. We give them opportunities to go abroad. We have dual-degree programs, we have the International Engineering Program, International Business Program, International Computer Science Program, and now the International Studies in Diplomacy Program.”