What makes a great professor? A commanding knowledge of their field is a given. But just as key is a passion for students and a respect for the journey these young adults are taking. Some are so devoted to undergraduate teaching that they choose to do it exclusively. Others maintain a commitment to undergrads while carrying out research and graduate-level teaching. A great professor is engaged—and it doesn’t matter if his class has 30 students or 300. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll go out for beers every Friday night, it does mean that they will be available during their office hours and ready to answer questions. Often, they will have a sense of humour and demonstrate a desire to learn from their students, as much as their students learn from them. And they will have a willingness to change and adapt their teaching and evaluation methods, whether by embracing new technologies or using old-fashioned networking techniques to pick up teaching tips from other colleagues. The four educators we profile here exemplify these qualities and that’s why they deserve to be called great profs.
Professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of British Columbia
Stull, 61, is a world-renowned expert in numerical weather prediction and also specializes in weather-related disasters in mountainous coastal regions. He has been teaching at UBC for 16 years and, before that, he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin. A native of Baltimore, Stull has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in atmospheric science, both from the University of Washington. In his spare time, he likes to fly planes and is also a flight instructor.
Why he’s good
Stull has a gift for making science compelling even to those without a background in it. His first-year course, called The Catastrophic Earth: Natural Disasters, has no prerequisites and is a popular choice for non-science majors. Each session draws between 300 and 400 students, half of them female. Every two weeks, Stull brings in a different professor to teach in his or her area of expertise—the topics can include everything from volcanoes to earthquakes. “[The students]enjoy when each of us comes in with our own stories. They see the human side of doing science,” Stull says.
He is an advocate of staying on top of technological innovations that boost the effectiveness of his teaching. Between lectures, students are given online questions about that week’s reading assignments, including one that asks what topic gave them the most difficulty. This allows Stull to tailor the next class to respond to how the class is progressing, as opposed to where the syllabus says it should be. During the lecture, students use wireless clickers to respond to multiple-choice questions about the topic they are discussing. “I instantly see whether they get it or not,” Stull says. If they’re having difficulties, he’ll segue into a micro-lecture to clarify them.
On engaging students
“I love interacting with the students,” Stull says, “to see their eyes light up. To see them evolve and mature. To see the joy of learning.” He was very keen to take part in the university’s Carl Wieman science education initiative, a project launched in 2007 by the Nobel laureate in physics to improve how science is taught to undergraduates. “Although there are many different teaching methods, it’s a reality that not all are effective,” says Stull. “The best way to tell is to gather a lot of data and to see where the students are learning. The bottom line is to approach scientific teaching scientifically.”
Associate Professor in Music History, Mount Allison University