Robert Brown has been nominated so many times for the Carl F. Wittke Award for Undergraduate Teaching and the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching that he has lost count of how many. What is special about this year is that he will receive the Wittke Award during Case Western Reserve University's Commencement on May 21.
Brown, who joined the Case faculty in the department of physics in 1970, received his first nomination for the undergraduate teaching award at the end of his first year teaching undergraduates at Case. But instead of pursuing interviews for the award, he recommended to the committee that he felt it should go to an older faculty member.
Years later, as the nominations continued to arrive each spring, he found himself telling the committee to give it to younger faculty members to help further their careers.
This year, Brown said he realized if he kept telling the committee to give it to someone else, he might never win the award. "After 36 years in the classroom, few opportunities may come again," he said.
So Brown stopped giving advice about who else should be the Wittke winner. He is now joyously basking in congratulations from his undergraduate students from his "Intro to Physics," known as P1, and from his graduate students in a "Magnetic Resonance Imaging" class.
This teaching honor is like frosting on the cake for Brown.
In the recent past, Brown has accumulated a number of honors for his contributions as a teacher—the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching (2003), the national American Association of Physics Teachers undergraduate teaching award (2004) and one of three finalists for the prestigious Robert Cherry Award from Baylor University (2005).
"As embarrassed as I am about getting more awards, the Wittke represents a watershed moment for me, in view of my long history at Case," stated Brown.
These honors reflect a career of innovations that spans from using email in the late 1980s and videoconferencing in the early 1990s to communicate help with homework assignments or with classroom problems to his latest approach of rethinking how to approach the complex subject of physic with his students.
Most recently Brown has pioneered a new teaching method that involves "revisit, remember and really learn physics."
His new 3Rs respond to several problems university professors encounter with students: by the end of the semester, students forget what was taught at the beginning of the course; and just when the stress of finals approach, the students have to master some of the most challenging materials in the course for the semester.
Brown's new strategy focuses on teaching an entire course in a shortened version in the first four weeks of class. He revisits the entire course with more details and concepts in the middle of the semester, followed by a third visit of the course in the final third of class with in-depth information. Each mini-section is followed by a final-like exam, with students taking the actual final as the fourth exam and by that time having a better chance at mastering the material. Student can earn 2,000 points each semester and so one exam will not result in a failing or low grade for the class.
"They know if they do the homework, they will learn," said Brown, who is in the process of writing a textbook based on this new way of teaching.
The method is used with undergraduates and graduate students in Brown's classes. Corbin Covault, who also teachers an introductory physics course, has used the method. Covault is a young faculty member that Brown wanted to recommend for the Wittke.
Brown said he has seen the average class scores rise from 81 points to 85. Brown and Covault's classes have received the highest cumulative rankings by students for teaching and classroom content in a survey of 18 first-year classes.
"When I first started teaching years ago, I thought I would have lost my excitement to teach by now. Instead, I'm finding that I'm more energized than ever to be a teacher," said Brown.
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