The late Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, once described a litmus test on whether he – or anyone else – truly grasped what they claimed to comprehend.
He “argued that one does not understand a complicated subject unless one can clearly explain it to a class of freshmen,” says Brianno Coller, a professor of mechanical engineering at NIU who joins Michael Kolb from the Department of Anthropology and Kristen Myers from the Department of Sociology as this year’s Presidential Teaching Professors.
Coller tried to follow Feynman’s advice.
“When I first started teaching, I focused primarily on presentation,” he says. “How could I most clearly explain the course material? What sort of memorable analogies could I make? What types of impactful demonstrations could I bring in to the classroom?”
Yet it wasn’t working. Disappointing test results told the story.
So Coller explored the literature and himself, making changes to convert his classroom into a “learning environment.” A main ingredient? Video games.
“Play is an important part of learning that transcends species. Children play. Puppies play. Birds play. Many scholars argue that play is an essential mechanism through which we develop an understanding of the world and our place within it,” Coller says.
“In the learning environments I design, I strive to find a balance of work and play,” he adds. “I, myself, have tremendous fun developing these environments.”
The Presidential Teaching Professorship designation was established in 1991 to recognize outstanding teachers who have demonstrated that:
- They instill and develop in students an intensity of interest in and an appreciation for the value of the subject.
- They apply rigorous standards to student performance, inspire students to become the best and stimulate student growth.
- They command respect and esteem as a teacher.
- They demonstrate extraordinary commitment to students and their welfare.
- They explore and develop effective instructional methods and technologies.
- They work actively with students, faculty, and administrators to improve undergraduate and/or graduate education at NIU.
Each receives budgetary support and release time for the enhancement of his or her teaching skills. After four years as a Presidential Teaching Professor, each is designated a Distinguished Teaching Professor.
“Were we to ask people for their definitions of ‘teaching,’ I would bet that a great majority would describe what amounts to a simple transfer of information from instructor to learner. That’s an outdated philosophy,” Interim Provost Lisa Freeman says.
“Our three Presidential Teaching Professors know that what students need is not just a lecture or a demonstration but the opportunity to build knowledge themselves. They need to engage with teachers and classmates to draw lines from what they already know to what they’re seeing, hearing and experiencing,” Freeman adds. “Brianno Coller, Michael Kolb and Kristen Myers are dynamic educators who are not only active partners in the intellectual growth of their students but also promoters of ‘Student Career Success’ who shape curious, lifelong learners.”
Click on the names below to learn more about this year’s Presidential Teaching Professors:
Celebrating Excellence at NIU, scheduled from April 12 to May 1, highlights the accomplishments and contributions of NIU students, faculty, staff and alumni to the university’s mission of promoting excellence and engagement in teaching and learning, research and scholarship, creativity and artistry and outreach and service during the academic year.