The 4 Professors of the Year Advise Their Peers: Keep Learning and Adapting

Council for Advancement and Support of Education

Professors of the year (clockwise from top left): Lois Roma-Deeley, Autar Kaw, Christy Price, Todd Pagano.
November 15, 2012

Learn from students. Embrace technology. Adapt as needed. Love what you do.

That's the key advice from the national winners of this year's U.S. Professors of the Year awards, presented by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

The four winners will receive $5,000 each. The organizations are also recognizing winners from 30 states and the District of Columbia.

Autar Kaw

Outstanding Doctoral and Research Universities Professor

Professor of mechanical engineering, U. of South Florida

Career: He has taught at South Florida for 25 years.

Education: B.E. in mechanical engineering, Birla Institute of Technology and Science, in India; M.S. and Ph.D. in engineering mechanics, Clemson U.

Advice: Work with, not against, technology.

Now that students can quickly find information on the Internet, professors must become increasingly better at showing students how to go beyond those facts. "It's a question of teaching students how to learn new things," Mr. Kaw says.

He used a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a popular digital and audiovisual numerical-methods course, which is available to anyone online at no cost. Mr. Kaw uses it to supplement his own numerical-methods course at the University of South Florida. As part of the course, he created a series of YouTube videos and has pursued other multimedia projects, to help students continue to learn outside of the classroom. "If you see a concept in multiple contexts," he says, "you are most probably going to retain it longer, and it's going to be in long-term memory."

The trick for professors, he says, is finding relevant and helpful ways to use technology to help students learn. Professors should stop using PowerPoint presentations "as if they're going out of style," he suggests. Unless he has a compelling reason to use PowerPoint, he says, he prefers to rely on a more-active teaching method.

His courses take advantage of technology, he says, but they still center on discussions and, in programming classes, hands-on projects. While technology can help students learn, Mr. Kaw says, it cannot replace professorial feedback.

Todd Pagano

Outstanding Master's Universities and Colleges Professor

Associate professor in the department of science and mathematics and director of the Laboratory Science Technology Program, at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York

Career: He has taught at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf for 10 years.

Education: B.A. in chemistry, State U. of New York College at Oswego; M.S. and Ph.D. in chemistry, Tufts U.

Advice: Don't underestimate students.

When Mr. Pagano began teaching students who are deaf and hard of hearing, he did not know American Sign Language. Now, a decade later, he not only signs fluently; he also works to expand the language. He and his chemistry students are developing new universal signs for science terms, such as spectroscopy, which are sometimes too specific to have a standardized sign in the language.

Over the years, he's also adjusted his teaching methods to help deaf or hard-of-hearing students in the chemistry classroom and found that his hearing students appreciated the changes as well. "Things you can do to benefit the learning process of your deaf and hard-of-hearing students will benefit your hearing students," he says. That means more visual learning, including an "electron dance" he does to illustrate electron transition stages, as well as hands-on demonstrations and efforts to simply slow down.

"If you don't have this burning passion to do anything that you can do to make a student understand a concept," he says, "then you may not be approaching it with enough vigor."

He has become an advocate for science students with disabilities. Various organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, have consulted him for advice, and he is a member of the American Chemical Society's Committee on Chemists With Disabilities. The biggest barriers to working with students with disabilities aren't actually communicating with them, he says, but have to do with preconceptions and misunderstandings about solutions for communicating with disabled students.

"Students with disabilities likely will be very unique students," he says. Mr. Pagano has found that such students are especially attentive to some aspects of science, such as what is going on around them in the lab, in part because they experience the classroom and learning differently.

Christy Price

Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor

Professor of psychology, Dalton State College, in Georgia

Career: She has taught at Dalton for 20 years. Her conference presentations and workshops have focused on engaging millennial learners, and faculty development.

Education: B.S. in social services, Northern Illinois U.; M.S. in counseling psychology, U. of Nebraska at Kearney; Ed.D. in community health, U. of Tennessee at Knoxville

Advice: Build a rapport with the modern learner.

Teaching is no longer about disseminating course content, says Ms. Price. "It's much more about developing students as individuals and helping them to become lifelong learners."

Ms. Price, who previously led efforts to increase student retention at her college, began doing research on millennial learners as a way to improve her own teaching methods. She found that millennials, born between 1981 and 1999 tend to benefit from active learning, variety, clear expectations, and a rapport with their professors. Millennial students, she says, want what previous research has already identified as the most-effective teaching methods. In lectures and workshops to help fellow professors, she advocates what she calls the "five R's" of engaging the millennial student: relevance of material, rationale for why classes are run the way they are, relaxed atmosphere, rapport with students, and research-based methods for teaching.

One of the keys, she says, is to find ways to motivate students to learn. Applying her research to her own classroom, she includes short media clips and psychological case studies to supplement lectures. Immersion projects in her psychology courses allow students to choose uncomfortable situations in which to place themselves, such as pretending to be homeless or of a different religion from their own. She has found that when she works hard to engage her students, they, in turn, "will respond in an exponential fashion."

Lois Roma-Deeley

Outstanding Community Colleges Professor

Professor of creative writing, poet-in-residence, and director of the creative-writing program, Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix

Career: She began working at Paradise Valley in 1996. Previously she was a lecturer, faculty associate, and director of the Community Writers Workshop at Arizona State U., where she worked from 1987 to 1994.

Education: B.A. in journalism, Arizona State U.; M.F.A. in creative writing (poetry), Arizona State U.; Ph.D. in interdisciplinary studies with a primary emphasis on poetry, Union Institute & U., in Cincinnati

Advice: Respect students and love what you do.

On Ms. Roma-Deeley's first day of teaching, a colleague told her that what professors ultimately teach is love. "It calmed me and oriented me to the essentials: love of the subject, love of the students, love of the whole genre," she says.

Since that day, she's taught students as old as 83 and as young as 14. The diversity of her classroom is one of the reasons she values the community-college world, what she calls "one of the great bastions of democracy."

"People come here for second or third chances," she says. "It's ennobling to watch."

She says she regularly thanks her students for allowing her to read and give feedback on their words. "As a writer, I have to face the page with as much courage as my students have," she says. "I'm moved by how much they trust me with their stories."

To succeed in the classroom, she says, professors should "respect their students, respect the genre, respect the discipline, and respect the effort their students make."