December 2006 Issue
Like their fellow "Excellence in Education" honorees, these three professors find creative and memorable ways to impart knowledge.
As a consequence of the publish-or-perish imperative that has been visited on high academia in recent years, the common wisdom pays little tribute to the teaching that goes on inside the ivied halls. But the common wisdom can be uncommonly wrong.
Outstanding teachers abound.
Ohio Magazine received 150 nominations from universities and colleges within the state for its annual Excellence in Education recognition. The nominations turned up some remarkable men and women who are recognized by both colleagues and students as being at the top of the class.
At Ohio University's main campus in Athens, Linda J. Rice, an assistant professor of English, says it's probably because she cares that she earned one of the five University Professor awards bestowed annually by the student body through the school's Center for Teaching Excellence.
"I genuinely care about my students, and they know that," she says. "It's not about going to coffee with students or anything. But if you create a sense of caring and interest in the classroom, it facilitates great discussions."
In her courses aimed at English majors and English teachers, Rice, 37, delves into literature with the goal of making connections between story, writing and real-world issues. Her published works cover a range of topics particularly useful to teachers, including literature by, for and about women, works for children and young adults, and writings from Africa.
As a result of winning a University Professor award, Rice has opted to design and teach a pair of upper-level classes, one on the life and writings of author and religious apologist C.S. Lewis and the other on "great teacher films." The class on Lewis, she acknowledges, was inspired by the box-office success of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a cinematic rendering of a Lewis story. The class on teacher films, which include "Dead Poets Society," "Dangerous Minds," "Stand and Deliver" and "Music of the Heart," is designed to show how films have depicted the classroom experience as well as teaching methods.
Though Hollywood hasn't always seen it her way, Rice says, "a classroom needs to be a safe, open place for students to express their ideas."
By that she means it's often a good idea for a teacher to facilitate discussion and then get out of the way to the extent that's possible.
"I find when teachers speak more," she says, "students speak less."
Chuck Ciampaglio, associate professor of geology and paleontology at Wright State University Lake Campus in Celina, has been making as indelible an impression on students as fossilized dinosaur bones in rock strata. Since his hiring in 2003, Ciampaglio's classes at the branch campus have become a popular draw for students from the main campus in Dayton willing to make the 75-mile drive to gain enlightenment about hard stuff they never thought they could care much about.
"If you don't like rocks going in [to a Ciampaglio class], you're going to like rocks coming out," says Alex Chestnut, a graduate student from Dayton. "He's a geologist, and he's passionate about it."
In 2005, Ciampaglio won an award from the university for faculty excellence. Cited were extended field trips taken with students, published research, 16 different classes taught, reorganization of the geology lab and the supervisory role played for independent projects by graduate and undergraduate students. Ciampaglio earned tenure at Wright State after only three years, meaning his career has evolved a lot quicker than any of the species in fossil form that he and students dig from the ground.
All that ancient earth continually coughs up something new about the origins of life on the planet and explains at least partially why an auto mechanic with an inquiring mind changed gears after 14 years and went back to school to look at some of the great unknowns. That journey carried him to a doctorate in paleontology and geology from Duke University. The second career has proved to be a precise fit.
"This is my life," Ciampaglio says, "This is my hobby, and this is my job. There is no separation between the two."
Almost serendipitously, though, lessons learned fixing cars help steer Ciampaglio's approach to the classroom. Students, like the people with broken-down vehicles who came to his repair shop in Baltimore, Maryland, expect positive results for their money.
"You want to give customers what they think they should get," he says.
One thing they don't get is imposed stress, which Ciampaglio insists is not helpful to the learning process. He prefers take-home exams that probe a student's knowledge of concepts and asks for a demonstration that applied learning has taken place. In the field, where trips lead to Pennsylvania, the South or stony sites in the American West, the professor often takes on the role of facilitator to individual explorations by his students. Or, as happened during the past year at a site in Mississippi, students took key roles in helping dig up the fossilized bones of a 55-million-year-old whale.
Ciampaglio's primary area of research interest is the five great extinctions that took place on earth, such as the one 250 million years ago that wiped out about 90 percent of living species and opened nature up for many "entirely new designs" that led to the rise of the dinosaurs, who then were replaced by mammals as one of the planet's dominant species during another great extinction 65 million years ago.
Despite being rooted professionally to the prehistoric past, Ciampaglio, 45, keeps a firm grip on the present when it comes to the classroom.
"It's about the students," he says, "and that's the bottom line."
Redefining the 'Three Rs'
At Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, the bottom line on Robert A. Brown, institute professor in the physics department, is simply that he's been drawing rave reviews from students for more than three decades.
"He was the finest teacher I ever had at Case -- or anywhere else for that matter," offers Richard P. Woodard, who tasted Harvard University's best on his way to earning a Ph.D. and becoming a professor of physics at the University of Florida. "My first class with Bob was Mathematical Methods of Physics. That was during the 1975-76 academic year, when I was a junior ... I think most physicists would agree that the subject can be pretty dull. It was anything but that with Bob Brown in charge."
While calculations in quantum electrodynamics might never rise to the general interest level of an "Oprah" show, such esoterica sometimes leads to real-world breakthroughs, which makes physics and physicists important in a technologically advancing culture. Brown literally wrote the book on MRI physics. His so-called "green bible" is the leading physics textbook in magnetic resonance imaging. But while equations, mass, trajectories and subatomic particles might provide the current in which physicists migrate, Brown, at an enthusiastic age 65, clearly gets a charge out of the act of teaching.
"It's a revolutionary time," he says, "and I'd like to think we're part of the revolution."
Brown introduced computers into the learning environment at Case Western Reserve's physics department in 1988, a few years before PCs became de rigueur in classrooms. Since about three years ago, however, he's been up to something completely different, a kind of personal redefining of the traditional "three Rs."
"My three Rs now are revisit, remember and really learn," he says.
Translated into practice, the "relearning cycle" method Brown has developed involves breaking a 15-week semester into three parts. During the first five weeks, all the class material is introduced in a relatively simple context. During the next two five-week periods, the material is revisited twice more "in increasingly sophisticated and integrated fashion." The relearning cycle is meant to overcome an age-old problem in education -- that students can be counted on to soon forget what they don't continue to use.
Thus, Brown says, in lieu of the common practice of teaching the calculations involving a subject such as trajectories once, then testing and moving on to other material, students gain an increased chance of long-term retention by twice more in a semester revisiting trajectories in a reconfigured way. Astrophysicist Corbin Covault, a Case Western Reserve colleague, has been employing the relearning cycle in his classroom. Brown was invited to attend last month's "Reinvention Center" conference in Washington, D.C., to present his handiwork and talk about results.
Brown says it's remarkable that there's a convergence between his work on MRI technology and teaching. Brain scans can reveal which parts of the brain are working during various tasks or processes, including thinking.
"If we can better learn how we think, we can better learn how we learn and, therefore, how we teach to learn," he says.