Outstanding Alumnus Award
Leona Penner graduated from Bethel in 1966 with a B.A. and majors in math and German. She spent a year at Philipps University, Marburg, Germany, during her undergraduate years, and later earned an M.A. for mathematics teachers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Penner retired in May 2012 after teaching mathematics for 46 years. From 1970-2013, she taught an integrated math course specifically designed for gifted and motivated students. The program is called Elements of Mathematics, although in Lincoln, it became known as “Penner Math” because it defined her and she defined it.
Penner began teaching at East High School in Lincoln in 1968. After two summers of training in Carbondale, Ill., she inaugurated Elements of Mathematics at East High in 1970.
She taught a problem-solving class (which she created) at East in 2007, 2008 and 2010, although her teaching emphasis was always on problem solving and development of mathematics, she said.
Simultaneous with her career in teaching math, Penner was also a coach of teams in both mathematics competition and in basketball.
From 1975-80, she conducted summer basketball clinics for girls in grades 7-12 and, from 1978-81, she was the faculty sponsor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at East High School.
She coached East High girls’ basketball from 1974-81, compiling a record of 106-24, earning several conference championships and a state championship and establishing a 48-game winning streak.
In 1995, Penner was inducted into the East High School Spartans Athletic Hall of Fame. She and her 1977 team were named to the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
In the summers of 2000, 2001 and 2002, Penner was an invited participant in an international collaboration, under the auspices of Better Practices in Education, with teachers from Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and the United States in developing a problem-solving approach to teaching mathematics. The group met twice in Bulgaria and once in Romania.
In 2013, Penner was part of a Guinness World Record-setting MATHCOUNTS group that had the fastest time assembling the first 25 rows of Pascal’s Triangle as a human formation.
Penner twice received the Edyth May Sliffe Award from the Mathematics Association of America, in 2003 for distinguished mathematics teaching in middle school, and in 2004 for distinguished teaching in high school.
Penner was honored in Washington, D.C., three different times – in 1987, 2006 and 2008 – as “most influential teacher” of a Presidential Scholar Winner.
She was nominated as Teacher of the Year for Lincoln Public Schools in 1982 and for a Christa McAuliffe Teaching Award in 1988. She was selected as a Nebraska Math Scholar 1986-88, one of 66 outstanding Nebraska teachers chosen, and she received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching in 1989.
Penner is a life member of the National Education Association, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the Christian Educators’ Association.
The Bethel College Alumni Association gives the Outstanding Alumnus Award on the basis of character and citizenship, service to church/community or college, or other outstanding achievements, honors and recognition.
Penner will receive the award and be honored along with other alumni award winners at the annual Alumni Banquet, which this year will be held the first Saturday in June (June 7), at noon rather than in the evening.
Price for the banquet is $23 per person if paying by May 23, $25 regular price May 26-28. To make a reservation, visit or phone Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center, 316-284-5205. Payment or credit card information is required when the reservation is made. No refunds can be given after May 30, since after that Alumni Office will have been charged for reserved meals.