Don’t let his three earrings—each for a major milestone in his career—fool you. Brian P. Coppola, a professor of chemistry and the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, takes his teaching responsibilities very seriously.
This past November, Coppola, 53, was the sole chemist among four educators named as 2009 U.S. Professors of the Year by the Council for Advancement & Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The winners, who were honored for their undergraduate teaching efforts, each received a $5,000 award.
CASE and the Carnegie Foundation named 38 other educators as state Professors of the Year. Those with ties to chemistry are Robert J. Beichner, a professor of physics at North Carolina State University; Susan Bontems, an associate professor of chemistry at Montgomery College, in Germantown, Md.; Ron C. Estler, a professor of chemistry at Fort Lewis College, in Durango, Colo.; Gregory M. Ferrence, a professor of chemistry at Illinois State University; Pawan K. Kahol, associate dean of the College of Natural & Applied Sciences at Missouri State University, Springfield; Tracy Knowles, an associate professor of chemistry and environmental science technology at Bluegrass Community & Technical College, in Lexington, Ky.; and Kenneth S. Sajwan, a professor of environmental science at Savannah State University, in Georgia.
“These professors have created learning environments in which students are not passive recipients of information—rather, they are active participants in their own education,” CASE President John Lippincott remarked at a luncheon for the awardees. “Our honorees believe in the pedagogical primacy of critical thinking, creative problem solving, and real-world experience.”
One experience that is crucial for students is teaching, Coppola noted at the awards luncheon, and he has made this practice a core component of his courses.
In his organic chemistry course, for example, some students transform the concepts reported in new research papers into content for a multimedia website and print edition that becomes, in effect, the text for the class, according to Coppola. Furthermore, “the final exam is based on the student text,” he said.
Students “learn better when they are explicitly aware of the need to teach others what they are learning,” Coppola said. “When students think about studying for exams as though they were preparing to tutor a peer, they end up learning more.” He said that he “mashes students together in order to get them to commit acts of teaching as part of their learning—something I have been lately carrying into both K–12 and international settings.”
In addition to his interactions in the classroom, Coppola has a number of other outlets for achieving his goals. He codirects the Instructional Development & Educational Assessment Institute, through which students ranging from undergraduates to postdocs who are interested in academic careers collaborate with professors on teaching projects. The institute is extending the concept to departments other than chemistry.
Coppola also directs a program that arranges for U.S. undergraduates to travel to Beijing for a summer of research and for Chinese students to carry out research at Michigan. And he is the associate director for the University of Michigan’s joint institute with Peking University.
Nominations for the 2010 U.S. Professors of the Year award program are due on April 16.