Chicago Tribune: Notre Dame professor wins national teaching award

by Meg McSherry Breslin

  • Notre Dame professor wins honor *
    p. A University of Notre Dame professor who transformed the way chemistry, engineering and physics are taught on campus has won the most prestigious national teaching award in higher education.

Dennis Jacobs, 42, a chemistry professor, was named the 2002 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Jacobs—described by students as an exceptional academic teacher and a “teacher about life as well”—was the sole recipient of the national award for teaching at doctoral and research universities. Another professor in Indiana, James Adams, a professor of art at Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., won in the baccalaureate college category, and two other awards were given for outstanding teaching in a community college and at a master’s university.

The U.S. Professors of the Year Awards, created in 1981, spotlight exceptional teaching at universities and colleges across the country.

The four professors of the year win a $5,000 cash award and Carnegie encourages them to spread their ideas for improving teaching and learning nationwide.

Jacobs takes a passionate and unconventional approach. This fall, he introduced a chemistry course that has students going into the community to test lead levels in homes.

“They’re seeing a human side of science that they don’t normally see,” Jacobs said. “The average sample is just thrown into a test tube but in this course, they collect the sample and analyze and process it, and they can attach a human face to it. They know it’s been collected from the living room where there’s a 3-year-old running around.”

For the last several years, Jacobs has spent much of his time researching ways to improve his methods. For years, he watched students struggle with an introductory general chemistry course that had been considered a weeding-out class for would-be chemists and doctors.

After seeing struggling students revamp their career aspirations because of a single course, he advocated big changes. Jacobs introduced an alternative class section aimed at students with the lowest SAT math scores.

In a letter of recommendation for the award, Notre Dame’s president, Rev. Edward Malloy, praised Jacobs’ initiative.

“He might have simply concluded that these students did not belong in science,” Malloy said. “But instead, he asked himself, `How could we help them learn?’”

November 21, 2002

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