4 Professors of the Year Are Honored for Excellence in Teaching and Service

November 19, 2015

Most professors hope to have an impact on their students, but their work usually takes place behind classroom doors. For the national recipients of the 2015 U.S. Professor of the Year Awards, their influence on their campuses is now rippling outward.

This year’s winners are four professors who exemplify outstanding leadership in undergraduate teaching and service. The annual awards are sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. They drew from almost 400 nominees this year. In addition to the national winners, the foundation named professors of the year in 35 states.

"When you’ve had a teacher who is inspiring, it can make a huge difference in your life," says Sue Cunningham, president of the council. The honorees show that "people inspire in different ways."

The winners will be recognized this week at a ceremony in Washington, and each will receive the award from a former student.

The following details about the winners, each from a different institution type, are drawn from personal statements released by the council, including the professors’ reflections about their work.

Baccalaureate Colleges
Brian Alegant, a professor of music theory at Oberlin College, in Ohio

As a professor at the Oberlin College Conservatory, Mr. Alegant has explored the notion of "scuba diving" in his teaching, focusing on covering less material in greater depth. And he says he never teaches the same class in quite the same way. Instead of lectures, quizzes, and examinations, Mr. Alegant’s curriculum for budding musicians uses self-designed projects and self-assessment, drawing from every genre to help "students to engage with the music they love as deeply and rigorously as possible," he says. "I am motivated by a desire to share the transformative power of music — my awe of it."

Community Colleges
Amina El-Ashmawy, a professor of chemistry at Collin College, in Texas

When the cost of textbooks spiked, Ms. El-Ashmawy decided to write her own curriculum with colleagues at Collin College so that every student could get access to the materials for her chemistry lab. She has served on American Chemical Society exam committees and has collected data to improve the college’s approaches to learning. Because chemistry can be abstract, Ms. El-Ashmawy uses everyday examples to make science relevant and wants students to feel free to make mistakes as they learn. She says that, after she graduated, the pay in laboratory work was "enticing," but such work "didn’t excite me the way teaching did."

Doctoral and Research Universities
Mats Selen, a professor of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Every answer reveals two more interesting questions, according to Mr. Selen. His own questions have led to projects and innovations used in classrooms on his campus and across the country, such as the i>clicker response system and the online-assessment tool SmartPhysics. In Urbana-Champaign, Mr. Selen’s Physics Van program has brought science to children at elementary schools using college volunteers since 1994. "These wonderful people have incorporated their love of teaching into all aspects of their lives, touching countless others," he wrote of his students. "Knowing them makes everything I do worthwhile."

Master’s Universities and Colleges
Stephanie Alvarez, an associate professor of Mexican-American studies and Spanish at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley

For Ms. Alvarez, learning must always connect to interaction with the local community. That’s why she uses service learning in every course she teaches to bridge cultural gaps and celebrate diversity. She works to give students experiences "within and outside the classroom," such as documenting the history of local migrant farmworkers. And she helps minority students recognize themselves in the curriculum. "This type of work is grueling and oftentimes not supported" because of a "lack of understanding," Ms. Alvarez wrote. But there is urgency to "educate this generation of diverse students."