They come from fields as different as creative writing and mechanical engineering, and they teach in distinct settings, but the winners of this year’s Professors of the Year awards from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education have one thing in common: they care deeply about students and about transforming the learning experience.
CASE’s annual awards, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recognize exceptional professors for their ability to engage and influence students. This year’s winners, selected from a pool of more than 300 nominees, are:
- Autar Kaw (doctoral and research universities), professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida.
- Todd Pagano (master’s universities and colleges), associate professor of science and mathematics and director of the laboratory science program at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
- Christy Price (baccalaureate colleges), professor of psychology at Dalton State College.
- Lois Roma-Deeley (community colleges), professor of creative writing and poet-in-residence at Paradise Valley Community College.
Autar Kaw’s goal is to make learning simpler – but that doesn’t mean his class is easy.
“I’m considered to be a really strict teacher by some,” said Kaw, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida. “But I think once students see that I have a lot of stake in the course, they know that even if I give a hard test, I have their best interests in mind.”
It was with students’ best interest in mind that Kaw developed open courseware  for numerical methods. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Kaw sought to give students, both at USF and elsewhere, an easier way to find the answers to their questions. “I have always been interested in making things simpler for students,” Kaw said. “As a society, we have not just an obligation but a duty to make everybody’s life a little bit simpler, a little more enriching.”
Kaw was inspired to design the open courseware when his students would repeatedly ask him questions he couldn’t answer quickly in class. “I would go back to my office and do the calculations and bring them back the next day,” he said.
Now, with the open courseware, which Kaw and his team spent 11 years developing and testing, students can learn and test concepts at their own pace, and not have to wait until the next class for the professor to bring back answers to their questions. Kaw and his team were also sure to include a variety of different delivery formats, including videos, textbook excerpts, and short quizzes, so students can approach a topic using whatever method they prefer.
“My students love it,” Kaw said. “It has really helped students see the implications of what they’re learning.”
Despite the success of this online initiative, Kaw believes learning is a social experience. Technology, he said, should be used to supplement instruction, not to replace it. “There has to be teacher-student interaction inside the classroom as well as outside the classroom. I strongly believe that,” Kaw said.
Outside the classroom, Kaw makes a point of attending student organization meetings. Inside the classroom, he has a simple tactic: he always arrives to class 10 minutes early.
“Even if they don’t ask questions, I can hear what they’re saying about the class,” he said. “It gives me a feel of what they’re struggling with.”
During class, Kaw will also use clickers to gauge student understanding, and will adjust his lectures based on students’ responses.
There is one piece of technology Kaw tries to keep out of his classroom, though: PowerPoint.
“I’ll only use it if I think there’s a really compelling reason,” he said. “It is mainly for the purposes of review.”
Not relying on PowerPoint has forced Kaw to slow down the pace of his class, but he says this has been very effective. Instead of breezing through slides, he spends time solving problems on the whiteboard, showing videos that demonstrate a concept, or answering students’ questions. He is a strong proponent of guided instruction – falling on the “sage on the stage” (vs. the “guide on the side”) side of the debate, he says – but he believes that instruction is more effective if it’s not given in slide form.
“Students are novices, they are not experts. If you are an expert, a guide on the side is a good way to teach you something new, but if you’re a novice you need guided instruction,” he said. “You can start with a sage on the stage and then slowly start taking away the support structure and become a guide on the side.”
A Hands-On Approach
Todd Pagano’s students once lured him to a surprise party with the ruse that he had won a teaching award and needed to go to a certain room to receive it, so when he heard he had been named Outstanding Master’s Universities and Colleges Professor of the Year, he was skeptical.
“I have a good relationship with my students and we like to have fun, so I really thought it was a joke,” Pagano said.
Pagano’s close relationship with his students is in no small part due to his reputation for never going home. In addition to teaching classes and supervising research, he attends students’ theatrical plays and sporting events, and helps with club meetings and advising, too. He’s also a strong advocate for his students, many of whom are deaf or hard of hearing. Pagano directs the laboratory science program at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and he is a member of the American Chemical Society Committee on Chemists with Disabilities.
Pagano didn’t know any sign language when he arrived at RIT. “On the first day, I was spelling out letters with my body,” he says, adding that his signing has improved a lot since then. But teaching advanced chemistry to deaf and hard-of-hearing students was a challenge Pagano was eager to take on, and he believes the adaptations he was forced to make to his teaching methods have benefited all of his students, not just those with hearing problems.
“I focus on things like making presentations more visual or slowing down, cutting out some of the fat, and making sure students have mastery of the important topics,” Pagano said.
He’s also become a more hands-on teacher, relying on demonstrations in every class. In teaching analytical instrumental analysis and measuring molecules, for example, Pagano might make some students act the role of molecules and others become instruments to demonstrate the concept, which he’ll then reinforce with math and theory. “I have a passion for really not giving up until the student understands the concept,” he said.
Pagano also believes every concept is equally important, and he tries to put his full energy into every lesson.
“The effort you put into your courses – and I put a lot of effort into them – is really worth it, because you don’t know if the next concept you teach is going to be the one that gets the student a job, and in those cases, it’s life-changing for those students,” he said.
Research can also change students’ lives, and Pagano makes sure to involve his students, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing, in his lab research.
He recalls one student in particular whom he met as a freshman with the odds stacked against her. She was the first in her family to go to college and didn’t know what to expect, Pagano said. She had no role models and little guidance, and, in Pagano’s opinion, was someone who might have a hard time making it through even the first year. Now, that student is finishing her master’s degree.
“She did research with me and we traveled the country presenting the results of our research,” Pagano said. “She saw snow-capped mountains in Salt Lake City for the first time as we were traveling. It was wonderful to see her grow."
Learning About Learning
Christy Price has a simple answer for her success: “You don’t get much sleep,” she says.
Price, a professor of psychology at Dalton State College, in Georgia, spends her time researching instructional techniques, applying them in her classroom, and teaching others how to make their classes more effective. She conducts conferences and faculty development workshops around the country and is also leading faculty members at her campus in developing a workbook on student engagement techniques (last year, they focused on learning-centered environments). She even gives students her cell phone number.
“It’s tough to balance this, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Price said. “It’s not really a job, it’s a lifestyle.”
The teaching lifestyle is one Price fell into, after initially taking a job as a counselor at Dalton State. As she moved to teaching, her interest in educational psychology also began to develop, and the pieces started to fit together. “In the very beginning, I was worried more about my teaching and less about the learning,” she said. “The shift has really been to how we promote assurance of learning. I’ve really taken my own research to heart.”
Price distils her research on effective learning environments down to the “5 Rs”: making information relevant, creating a relaxed atmosphere, using research-based teaching methods, developing rapport, and providing rationale for assignments and policies.
Relevance is particularly important, Price said, because students of this generation want to know why they’re learning something and how it applies to their lives. Price tries to integrate a lot of real-life cases into her teaching, and encourages others to do the same. “We might have a 15-minute mini-lecture, some discussion, and then group work on a short case applying the information that we’ve learned,” Price said, describing a typical class.
As an example, Price highlights a recent class on personal relationships, where students were able to watch videos of real married couples going through counseling.
“The students love it,” she said.
Price also pays special attention to developing a rapport with students. “This is the most relational generation yet, and their expectation is that we really take an interest in them and care about them,” she said.
In counseling other professors, Price advises that they not wait until end-of-semester evaluations come in to judge whether or not they are connecting with students. Instead, Price gives her students a mid-semester evaluation, in which she asks the question that is most important to her: “Do you feel as though I’m on your side?”
Students will respond if they feel their professors care about them, Price said, and she is constantly impressed by how appreciative students are.
Though Price did not plan to teach, she has developed a passion for the classroom, and she credits Dalton State for bringing out her best. “In this kind of environment, it’s hard not to be inspired and step up,” she said. “I really credit my colleagues. I want our campus to feel this is an award for all of us, not just for me.”
Unleashing the Imagination
For Lois Roma-Deeley, designing a course is like writing a poem: she starts with a draft and then revises until she achieves the desired impact.
Roma-Deeley is a professor of creative writing and women’s studies at Arizona's Paradise Valley Community College, where she is also poet-in-residence. She teaches students ranging in age from 15 to 83 and in interest from writing to nursing to accounting. She knows her students are all there for different reasons, but as a strong believer in the value of the liberal arts, she makes it her goal to ensure everyone gains something from her courses.
“Those are the classes that you take in college that kind of have the opportunity to change your whole life,” she says of women’s studies and creative writing courses. “I take it extremely seriously in terms of my obligation to provide good-quality courses that are demanding, but also make people think about their lives and about their role as a human being in society.”
A champion of the liberal arts in community colleges, Roma-Deeley oversaw the development of Paradise Valley’s creative writing classes into a certificate program and launched a visiting scholars initiative that brings accomplished writers to campus. She also coordinates a campus literary contest, helps edit the campus literary journal, and assists students in entering statewide and national creative writing contests.
She takes great care to assure that all these aspects of Paradise Valley’s writing program build on each other. If a particular poet is coming to speak, for example, she’ll introduce that poet in her class, have students discuss the poet’s work, and ask the poet to not only give a reading but also to answer students’ questions. Students might even try writing poems based on that poet’s style. Roma-Deeley thinks of it as a spiral leading students past the plateaus that come with the pursuit of creative writing.
“Ultimately, I want my students to experience themselves as intellectuals who are creative and who, and this really key, are actively contributing to the making of the culture of our times,” she said.
This is no small task, Roma-Deeley recognizes, and she works hard to create an “intellectually and imaginatively safe” environment for her students. She tries to weave personal stories into her classes to relate to students; she also remains very aware of the mood in the classroom and aims to let discussions and learning develop organically.
“I try to teach by example so I use a lot of personal stories, which are not threatening, and at the same time you do a lot of classroom management, where you’re looking at group dynamics, individual dynamics, and looking at their faces, all the while trying to look casual,” she said. “It’s all about trying to be casual, which is exhausting.”
Roma-Deeley doesn’t mind the exhaustion, though, because she is passionate about her job. She enjoys developing students into writers, and takes great pride when they win a national prize or go on to careers in the liberal arts.
“I really believe in what I’m doing,” Roma-Deeley said. “I believe it makes a difference.”
She excitedly talks about one student who won $20,000 for a poem and started her own publishing company, another who earned a spot in Bucknell University’s Seminar for Younger Poets, and another who has gone on to teach high school English. “I’ve had students who have not only reached their dreams but exceeded their dreams,” she says. “What’s better than that?”
Roma-Deeley admits that her duties in the classroom and in other areas of the college don’t leave much time for writing, but she believes the experiences are helping to inform her poetry. “One of the most important pieces of advice a professor gave me was that the poetry’s in the living. The fact that I’m busy teaching and I’m involved in some national organizations along with the vibrancy of this campus I think has to contribute to the poetry,” she said.