N.C.’s Top Professor

November 19, 2009

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Robert Beichner has long been regarded as an expert not only in his field, but also as a teacher and a mentor with an uncanny ability to influence the lives and careers of his students and colleagues alike.

His contributions to science education, from co-authoring a top-selling physics textbook to literally changing how our students are educated in the classroom, reach far beyond the boundaries of our own campus. Earlier today, Beichner was recognized for his efforts, and named North Carolina Professor of the Year by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education [CASE].

“I’ve had the privilege to learn from the teaching of many talented individuals in a wide variety of fields of study,” NC State junior Nicko Guyer said. “The teachers I find I learn the most from always love the material that they teach, love teaching it, and earnestly want their students to be able to understand what it is they have to offer.

“This is exactly the type of teacher that Dr. Beichner is.”

Beichner’s innovative work with SCALE-UP has caught on around the country, with more than 100 schools – including MIT, Clemson, and the University of Alabama – investing in similar programs. The project borrows methodology and teaching efforts proven to be successful in small class settings, such as hands-on activities, simulations and roundtable discussions, and adapts them for use in larger classrooms.

It’s a concept that has proven wildly successful, for Beichner, who was named 2009-10 Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher by the Society for College Science Teachers and the National Science Teachers Association on October 15.

“The SCALE-UP techniques Bob has developed have had a huge impact on the success of students not just at NC State, but around the world,” said Dr. Daniel Solomon, dean of NC State’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. “It is particularly striking that success rates among females and racial minorities increase dramatically in a SCALE-UP setting compared to a traditional classroom.

“These are groups that are historically underrepresented in the sciences and engineering and are needed in much greater numbers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] workforce.”

Beichner, the director of NC State’s STEM Education Initiative, said the modifications SCALE-UP offers are a benefit to both faculty and students.

“There is a lot of research that shows being actively involved with what you are trying to learn helps you learn, it makes it easier to learn and you learn it better,” Beichner said. “What we’ve done that is different is find a way to make it work even in classes at a university the size of NC State.

“Instead of me talking at 100 students, I’m able to go around the room and talk with smaller numbers of students,” he said. “There’s much more faculty-to-student and student-to-student interaction than you would find in a regular classroom setting.”

Guyer, a computer science major, said Beichner’s teaching style transcends education and uncovers a sincere passion for helping students truly learn.

“Dr. Beichner’s SCALE-UP physics class is nothing like a regular lecture hall,” he said. “Rather than listening to a professor speak for an hour, learning becomes a much more interactive experience.

“He also takes time to talk with students before and after class, even on topics not related to physics at all, and makes an effort to become a friend to students, rather than just a teacher,” Guyer said. “This makes learning a much more enjoyable experience, because it’s a lot easier to learn something from a friend who actually wants to help you, rather than someone who stands at the front of the class and talks for an hour because that’s what they are paid to do.”

The U.S. Professors of the Year program salutes the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country – those who excel as teachers and influence the lives and careers of their students. One professor is chosen from each state, as well as the District of Columbia and Guam. The Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher program, on the other hand, names a single award winner for the entire nation.

“These professors have a passion for teaching that sparks a passion for learning in their students,” CASE president John Lippincott said. “As great teachers, they combine a profound knowledge of their disciplines with creative teaching methods to engage students within and outside of the classroom.”

Solomon, who has served as Dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences since 2000, agreed.

“Bob has devoted his career to improving the way we teach – and students learn – science at the university level,” he said. “His very presence has allowed us to attract other STEM education experts to NC State, creating a community of faculty whose research will put the university at the forefront in this area and further improve postsecondary STEM education for generations to come.”