Professors of the Year

In podcast interviews, winners of annual national contest describe their pedagogical approaches.
November 19, 2009

The seminal moment of Brian P. Coppola’s career as a chemistry professor came when, as an art student at the University of New Hampshire in the 1970s, he was assigned to draw a picture of his roommate’s feet.

In art, or music, or theater, “You can give 20 people the same assignment, and there is absolutely no possibility they can cheat,” says Coppola, who is being recognized today, along with three others, as the U.S. professors of the year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The science courses Coppola took (and, early in his career, taught) worked much differently than that art class: A whole class was given an identical set of problems with the expectation that they would return an identical set of answers. That model, Coppola says, denies students the imaginative side of chemistry. “It’s actually very reductionist,” he says.

So the professor, who teaches chemistry at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, decided to make his chemistry classes more like his old art classes. Back at New Hampshire, Coppola’s professor would put all the completed drawing assignments on the wall and discuss how each author confronted and tried to solve the general problems inherent to, say, drawing feet, in the context of their unique efforts. After a few weeks, he would let students in on the conversation, until eventually they become as integral to the teaching process as he was. “It’s a combination of how art and science operate,” he says.

Since 1994, Coppola has organized students in his organic chemistry classes into “teaching teams” and assigned each to examine different parts of the discipline. Over the course of the semester, those teams collaborate to develop assignments and, under the guidance of teaching assistants, co-write a 250-page textbook. “My syllabus after mid-term is blank,” Coppola says, “because in the first half they are working on proposals for what they want to do for the second half.”

As the end of the semester approaches, Coppola tells his students he will be formulating the exam based on mistakes in the textbook the students have co-authored, prompting them to study by checking their work en masse. “It is inevitable,” Coppola says, “that they have to go find a room together and just be tearing that damn book apart.”

Coppola is not the only professor being recognized for breaking down the top-down classroom dynamic and empowering students to teach as they learn. The council named Tracey McKenzie, a sociology professor at Collin College, in Frisco, Tex., as its community college professor of the year for her use of “teaching communities,” where students collaborate on original research and are encouraged to share that research broadly.

Richard L. Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, was named top professor among master’s institution nominees for also pushing his students to make original discoveries. A number of his students have published their original work.

The award for professor of the year at a baccalaureate college was given to Rob Thomas, a professor of geology at the University of Montana Western, for his efforts to advance experiential learning in a geology program there.

The judges — comprising education reporters, academics, government agencies, and foundations — chose the winners from a pool of more than 300 nominees, basing their selections on four criteria:

  • Impact on and involvement with undergraduate students.
  • Scholarly approach to teaching and learning.
  • Contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession.
  • Support from colleagues and current and former undergraduate students.


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