December 2013 Issue
Lessons for Life
Meet three Ohio educators who are equipping their students with a curiosity for learning that extends far beyond graduation.
Before his career as an associate professor at Miami University in Oxford, Bo Brinkman worked as a software engineer. These days, he teaches algorithms and data structures, computer ethics, and courses related to his own area of research — augmented reality. (Even if you’ve never heard of augmented reality, you’ve seen it. The first-down marker that appears on your television screen during a football game is an example of the technology.)
Brinkman’s teaching style puts a value on interaction between students and a group learning experience over the traditional lecture. It’s not that the textbook doesn’t have a place in the process. It’s just that Brinkman sees absorbing that information as the precursor to what should happen in the classroom.
“If you gather everyone together in a physical space, why not use it for things that are interactive and not lecture?” he asks. “Students can read and learn a lot on their own, and then in class we can focus on things that are harder to communicate.” Instead of repeating what’s in the book, Brinkman seeks to reinforce the critical parts.
Brinkman works closely with his students, as evidenced by a recent independent-study project that yielded the opportunity to patent a smartphone app that makes it possible for librarians to use their mobile phones to determine if the books on a shelf are in proper order. He and a student co-developed the shelf-reading app, and while he points to it as one of his most memorable teaching experiences, he says what’s most gratifying is seeing where his students end up after graduation. And when they go out into the world, he hopes they take a healthy bit of skepticism with them when making decisions.
“Optimism is the root of all evil,” Brinkman says, which sounds like odd advice until he explains himself. “Optimism is the voice that tells you it will probably work — the voice that tells you to not think critically about the situation,” he says. “Instead, be suspicious about the voice and have some self-skepticism. You need to think through whether it will really work.”
Mark Keller was honing his craft long before he entered the field of education. From fast-food manager to pastor to father of three, Keller says he’s been a teacher his entire life.
The senior professor, who has been teaching at DeVry University for the past 23 years, teaches economics, science, and philosophy and ethics. Today, the Columbus educator is most concerned with how students learn, especially students from different generations. He says he believes effective teaching requires a constantly changing learning experience that is based on interaction.
“The information available online is what professors used to dispense with chalk and the basic lecture,” he explains. “I feel like my job is to somehow facilitate the learning process rather than to dispense information. There is no reason for me to lecture on a topic if [the students] can Google it. I take the information they can get, and then find out how it impacts their life.”
That means news often makes its way into classroom discussions and learning frequently takes place outside of the traditional setting. For instance,
Keller’s science class took a recent field trip to Blacklick Woods Metro Park in Reynoldsburg so students could search for macroinvertebrates and practice stream-quality monitoring. “We basically understand the importance of the students and make sure they have the right learning environment,” Keller says.
In his ethics courses, Keller also teaches by serving as an example. Earlier this year, he traveled to El Salvador to help rebuild houses that were destroyed by an earthquake. He does similar work in Columbus while volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and often invites students to join him.
“I tell the students they will be successful if they do their homework, come to class and engage in the process,” he explains. “I also tell them to prepare carefully and to engage fully in life.”
When asked what subjects she teaches, Stephannie Gearhart responds with a joke: “Mostly anything old and British.”
Gearhart, an associate professor of English at Bowling Green State University, was trained as a Renaissance literature scholar, so the more in-depth answer is British literature, Shakespeare and adaptations of Shakespeare. Simply put, she likes to dismantle the puzzles associated with 400-year-old
poetry and prose.
But for many people, these subjects bring back memories of some of the toughest texts they had to tackle during their college years. That’s why Gearhart employs a student-centered approach to the topic. For starters, Gearhart understands that everyone has what she refers to as a “Shakespeare threshold” — or how much material can be absorbed in one sitting. She equips her students with practical tips, ranging from reading strategies to information about the culture to suggestions about how the language works.
“But I don’t hide the difficulty,” she says. “I hope they gain some confidence in the process. And I want them to see the bigger-picture issues.”
During class, Gearhart begins with a brief lecture, followed by a central question that she opens up for discussion.
In 2012, Gearhart received the Bowling Green State University Master Teacher Award, which is considered one of the highest honors at the university because students choose the recipient.
After hearing this, it’s not surprising to learn that Gearhart says she puts an emphasis on compassion in her teaching.
“If they see me demonstrating compassion to them and their peers in the classroom, I hope they will somehow come away with compassion or feeling for other people,” she says.
Gearhart started her teaching career at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and she has embraced the wider range of student diversity she has found at Bowling Green.
“Some are first-generation students, and I feel strongly about serving [them],” she says. “I encourage them to try new things and to keep an open mind about where their lives are going.”