Created in 1964 by the Western Reserve University Board of Trustees, the Carl F. Wittke Award for Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching is named for Carl Frederick Wittke, who, from 1948 to 1963, was professor of history, chair of the Department of History and vice president of Western Reserve University.
Originally, the award was presented to an exemplary undergraduate faculty member in the departments of history, English, political science or economics. In 1971, the nature of the award changed: All faculty members who teach undergraduates are eligible. Undergraduates nominate candidates; a committee of students interviews nominated faculty members and recommends winners.
The 2010 recipients are Frank Merat and Rekha Srinivasan.
Frank Merat has been teaching at Case Western Reserve since 1979 and has consistently focused his approach on engaging students and getting them interested in the lessons. But this year he added a new twist.
Listening to student feedback from course evaluations, Merat noted that many students felt too many lessons focused on theory rather than real-life problems. So he reverse-engineered his lesson plans: He wrote all his homework problems first, and then taught techniques around solving those problems.
To keep his students motivated and engaged, he tried to make sure there were problems for every variety of major in his classes. “Students seem to get more motivated when you can show them how the lesson is of value to them,” says Merat. So he made sure there were examples that were relevant to biomedical engineering majors as well as civil engineering majors.
This was much appreciated by his students. “His teaching style really fits how we learn,” says one of his nominators. “He’s really patient with us, and we all respect him a lot.”
Merat was left stunned and speechless after learning of his Wittke Award win. “I’m still not sure what this means,” he says. “It’s not going to change my striving to be a better teacher. And it’s not going to change my thirst for learning. But I suppose it does affirm my teaching approach.”
And that approach is a focus on the future. “We’ve got to make our classes more relevant to our students as they see it,” says Merat. “I don’t know and they don’t know what they’ll need to know in their careers. But they will always need to know how to learn, and that’s where I can help.”
Having a class of 290 students doesn’t make it easy to get to know class members on a personal basis. Yet organic chemistry instructor Rekha Srinivasan makes a point of speaking with each student individually in the first week of breakout lab sessions.
“It’s important to me to know my students, to know where they are coming from and what type of skill set they have,” says Srinivasan. “And I think it’s important for them to know that you care.”
And care she does. Srinivasan’s No. 1 mantra is to be personally excited about what she is teaching. “Whatever I’m talking about, my eyes need to light up. Then my students are drawn into that.”
Her students certainly appreciate her effort. “With her help I have reversed and avoided many mistakes in the lab,” says one of her nominators. “She also ensures that I know why I am making certain changes. I like her most, however, because from day one she took an interest not only in me, but in every one of her students. This is greatly appreciated and rare for a professor of a large lecturing class.”
Her receipt of the Wittke Award has left her shocked, humbled and encouraged. Having taught at the university for five years, Srinivasan never thought she could have won the honor so early in her career. “To me, it’s a pat on the back that I should continue doing what I’m doing. Every year, I try to introduce something new — teach a lesson in a different way, try a different experiment rather than the standard protocol — and this gives me confidence to continue to come up with more interesting methodologies. It’s important to keep it fresh — both for me and for the students.”
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