Season 5 - Episode 511
Baylor’s Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching promotes the value of teaching and honors those who do it well. The $250,000 award is the single largest monetary award presented by a university to an individual for exceptional teaching. In this Baylor Connections, Michael Thompson, committee chair for the award and professor and associate dean in Baylor Engineering and Computer Science, discusses the Cherry Award and highlights the role of great teachers.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and today we are talking about great teaching with Dr. Michael Thompson. Dr. Thompson serves as Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in Baylor's School of Engineering and Computer Science. Beyond ECS, he serves as Committee Chair for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching housed at Baylor to honor great teachers.
Derek Smith:The award provides a $250,000 stipend and invites the winning scholar to teach in residence at Baylor. The prestigious honor provides the single largest monetary award presented by a college or university to an individual for exceptional teaching. This year's recipient, Dr. Hollylynne Lee, serves as distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Education at North Carolina State University. The award was established in 1991 and has since grown into a bi-annual award. And Dr. Thompson, I know you're here representing a number of people who are so into this award, in one way or another, and we appreciate you taking the time to do so. Thanks for joining us today.
Michael Thompson:Yes, thanks Derek. Appreciate it. I'm glad to be here.
Derek Smith:Well, great to talk to you about the Cherry Award. I think it's something that people have heard of and maybe vaguely know what it is, but we can really dive into it and its impact. So earlier this year, we just saw the news that Dr. Lee winning the bi-annual award. I know a lot of work has to go into that. How satisfying is it for you and your colleagues to get to the point where you have a recipient and can begin that process that's very tangible once you have a winner?
Michael Thompson:Yeah, you're exactly right. It's nice to go through the process. We all find it humbling to look at all these nominations and see some of the great accomplishments that happen across the country really. We typically get nomination pool in the hundreds.
Michael Thompson:And fantastic people out there. And it's a tough process to narrow that down and come up with one particular person that's going to represent great teaching.
Derek Smith:Well, that's something.
Michael Thompson:It's awesome to wrap that up and we really look forward to having our recipient on campus.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. You get a lot of the best of the best applying for it. And just before we really dive in, I want to ask, the description of the award I gave at the top of the show is pretty brief, so could you unpack that a little bit more? Tell us more about the award and how it began.
Michael Thompson:Yes. So my experience with the award started in 2010 when I joined the committee for selecting the Cherry Professor. And I was like most people, I knew about it, but I didn't know a lot about it. And so when I joined the committee, I started looking into the writings of Robert Foster Cherry. Robert Foster Cherry was a student, a graduate at Baylor in 1929. He went to Baylor Law School in 1932 and obviously, had a successful life. And along the way, he recognized the role that great teachers had on his life. And I thought, what a great concept to leave a legacy. He endowed the award that's in its present form and so he left this legacy with the vision of it becoming a preeminent teaching award. And I like to look back and think that his vision has come true.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. A lot of fantastic recipients. Who are some of those recipients and where do they come from?
Michael Thompson:Yeah, I'm glad I can say these names, because I've been on the committee a long time. I've been the chair since 2012, and it started 2010 with Ed Burger. He was from William College, mathematician. And then in 2012, we had Brian Coppola from University of Michigan, chemist and Professor of Chemistry. 2014, Dr. Meera Chandrasekhar from University of Missouri. She won the award and she teaches in physics. And then 2016, Mikki Hebl comes in from Rice University down the road. She does work in psychology and business management. Interesting combination. Some of those collaborations are still going on, so that's great. And then 2018, Neil Garg, UCLA, another Professor of Chemistry and 2020, Jennifer Cognard-Black, an English Professor from St. Mary's College of Maryland. So quite a variety of institutions, a variety of disciplines, as well.
Derek Smith:Yeah, various backgrounds coming from all over to Baylor. And I'm sure narrowing down the many different disciplines that apply each year, it can be challenging too, in a good way.
Michael Thompson:It is a challenge whenever we bring people to campus. I tell them, unlike a sports competition where there's rules, we are comparing different disciplines, and we're just trying to come up with the person that makes the best fit and can represent teaching at Baylor and bringing a great teaching experience to our Baylor students. And so, it's not like it's a fair game. It's just, we're looking at coming up with a way of honoring great teachers and it's a very difficult problem to solve when you have so many good applicants.
Derek Smith:We are talking to Dr. Michael Thompson from Baylor Engineering and also the Committee Chair for the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. And you mentioned that Robert Foster Cherry's endowment established this award. How does Baylor steward the gift to ensure its greatest impact? Not just financially, but even beyond that.
Michael Thompson:Yeah, that's a great question. And Robert Foster Cherry, he did work it out with the powers that be on his vision for the award. And Baylor has been very supportive because it aligns so well with our mission of great teaching. We emphasize that here at Baylor, of course. And so along the way, there's different things that you need to do. You need to come from the university to support the award. Things like marketing, we have a great marketing team at Baylor, and we're able to push the word out on this award and get some great applicants.
Derek Smith:How do applicants find out about the award? Is it well known in higher education or what's that process at the top of the funnel look like?
Michael Thompson:I think it's well known. There's been word of mouth over the years, of course, but then we are proactive and we advertise in the New York Times and the New York Times Education Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education. And then our Baylor folks are savvy. They know about social media and Google ads and all those kind of things. So we're out there. We spend some resources to get the Cherry Award promoted. And of course at the same time, we get to promote Baylor University.
Derek Smith:Our guest today is Michael Thompson and let's talk about the Baylor campus. Obviously, you bring finalists here, the winner serves as a faculty in residence. What in your mind, is the impact of this award on the Baylor campus?
Michael Thompson:Oh, it's had a fantastic impact. First of all, I think just within the classroom, we get some great feedback from students that say, "Hey, this is my favorite professor ever." And I guess that's to be expected. You're up for a teaching award and you're here for a reason. But then, there's just been some legacy things that have happened. When Ed Burger came, he started a lunchtime series where different faculty across campus could talk about great teaching that has existed, maybe not in that name, but in that form. There's a common process where we get together as faculty members and talk about great teaching across lunchtime.
Michael Thompson:Then what comes to mind, Meera Chandrasekhar, she came up with this idea of science Thursdays. And so it got people from the scientists together on Thursday evenings during the semester she was in residence. And so, it was just a great time to have an impact and think about teaching. And every year the ATL seems to get involved and the Cherry Professor participates in that process as well. So there's just plenty of avenues that we get to see great teaching. And then of course, I hope, people want to copy and steal from our great Cherry Professors to improve the teaching experience at Baylor.
Derek Smith:How big of a move is that? I think if I'm teaching, like you mentioned UCLA or Rice or North Carolina State, to come to Waco for a semester is no small thing. What's that like for the recipients?
Michael Thompson:Yeah, we admire them for being willing to put a pause on their lives and come to campus and interact with the faculty and the staff and more importantly, the students at Baylor. So we hope it's a good experience. We provide some housing right next to campus to make it easy to interact. An example comes to mind that Neil Garg, the chemist, organic chemistry tends to be taught in large sections across the country and that's no different here at Baylor. And so, he would teach these large sections of classes, but then he would make it small by having some group meetings and dinners and things at his house. And he was able to make that connection work. And so, we hope all of our Cherry Award winners enjoy the campus experience and we're really grateful that they're willing to put a pause on their lives and come and teach in residence at Baylor.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Michael Thompson, Committee Chair of the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in Baylor's school of Engineering and Computer Science. So you've just named an award winner and they'll be coming to campus, but let's think about the process, the life cycle of application to finding someone to then coming here. Could you take us inside that a little bit. And let's start with the who. Who all's involved at Baylor and how are they put together to determine the process and the recipient?
Michael Thompson:Great question. Well, to start with the who, we do have a Cherry Award selection committee, and as you might expect, we would need representation from across campus with the various teaching disciplines. And so that's one of our first priorities. And so we have that system worked out to make sure we have good representation of various academic disciplines. Then, we're looking for people that have a commitment to teaching, to serve on the committee and so we're able to put together some fantastic committees that are great teachers in their own right. And so, that's a fun process to actually be a member of that committee. I ask people to join the committee and normally, you get the normal professor reaction and caution that, "Oh, how much time is this going to take?" And I tell them, "It's a time commitment to go through these nominations, but you'll feel a sense of gratitude as you go through this and you'll enjoy working with your fellow committee members."
Michael Thompson:And I hear all the time from committee members, "Oh, this was the greatest committee I've ever been on." And from my perspective, I've been on the committee since 2010, so I'm finally going to rotate off, but it's just to give someone else a chance, because it's such a gratifying experience. But that's the who of it. And then the next process is, we take nominations. And so, the typical process would be a nominator would put together a summary letter of accomplishments and send the person's curriculum vitae and write in there, into the nomination letter, what distinguishing features this particular person would have to make them Cherry worthy. And so that's a great process. And then more importantly, students write letters of recommendations that tell about the impact that these teachers have had on their lives and that carries a lot of weight with the committee.
Michael Thompson:So from there, it's a process of narrowing down to where we have three finalists and then the finalists come to campus for a campus experience and are able to present a public lecture in their time at Baylor. And then they also teach in a couple of classes and the Cherry committee members go in and observe the teaching process and how well they interact with students and get an idea of their teaching abilities. We know they're great teachers, but we're just trying to make the best fit to come up with the recipient of the award.
Derek Smith:As you mentioned, there's no completely fair way to do it. You and your colleagues are applying judgment through the process in the sense of own personal sense and your experience feeding into that. What are some of the ways that you do narrow, when you've got all these fantastic applicants, and I would imagine student letters or faculty recommendations for the universities, they are both impressive and probably have a lot of similar features at times. How do you wade through all that?
Michael Thompson:Exactly, it's very challenging. And in fact, whenever we choose a recipient of the award, I have a couple of weeks where I mourn for the finalists that didn't win, because I envisioned such great impact that they could have had, had they been the person that was selected. And so I guess that speaks to the selection process. We envision what that person would look like. It's easier when they come to campus and actually participate with a public lecture. And they meet with various groups across campus and so we can get a sense of who resonates the best in the moment to make the highest impact on Baylor students is our primary guideline.
Derek Smith:You mentioned this is about elevating great teaching and it's importance, it's impact, and furthering it for the future. What have you learned about what great teaching is through this process? I mean, obviously, you've been pursuing this your whole career and then now being involved on this side of things, how's that shaped what your view of what great teaching is?
Michael Thompson:Well, that's a great question. Well, first of all, there's the mechanics of teaching and some of these award winners in the past, have taken different approaches. Neil Garg, for example, I told you about him having big sections of organic chemistry and he was able to incorporate graduate student help in a very systematic way. Brian Coppola was also a chemist and he had similar processes that affected the way that we operate in engineering. Brian, I think, took some undergraduate level students that had just gone through organic chemistry and folded those top students in those classes, back into the classroom. We do the same thing now in our engineering classes, because we just blatantly stole from that.
Derek Smith:Nothing wrong with that.
Michael Thompson:So, I think that happens across campus that the committee members participate, rub shoulders with these great professors, and it just built on itself.
Derek Smith:Dr. Hollylynne Lee from North Carolina State, this year's recipient, she's a distinguished professor of mathematics and statistics education. I mean, she obviously rose through the top of a great group of applicants this year. Well, what can you tell us about her?
Michael Thompson:Wow, she's just fantastic. So Hollylynne is a bundle of energy. She's very enthusiastic. She's housed out of the School of Ed, but she does data science. So that's an interesting combination, because data science is spanning across a number of disciplines. I put a plug in here for Baylor's Engineering, Computer Science. We started a data science program that arises out of computer science, so we're definitely looking forward to interacting with Hollylynne Lee about the data science discipline.
Michael Thompson:But, I think back on her campus experience and she gave a couple of fantastic lectures where we're a data driven society and not everybody is super comfortable with that. Not everyone's an expert in statistics and how to interpret numbers and her public lecture was just fantastic, because she had great ways of interacting with data. She had people enthusiastic about the tools that she was using. One of the things she did was, she was looking at these data maps of chain restaurants within the Waco area. So what do you think Derek? What's the most common chain restaurant in Waco? What would be your guess?
Derek Smith:Oh boy. I would probably guess McDonald's, or-
Michael Thompson:That was my guess.
Derek Smith:Yes, that would be my guess.
Michael Thompson:If you think about it, there are a lot of Subways.
Derek Smith:That's right.
Michael Thompson:Eighteen Subways in the Waco area, but that lecture happened seven or eight months ago and I still remember many things about it and that was what she brings to the table, a great way of taking the fear out of data and data science and getting people engaged. And of course, she's in the School of Ed, so she teaches teachers how to teach and so we're seeing that as a great potential impact at Baylor.
Derek Smith:Dr. Thompson, before we wind down, I want to ask you a little bit too, about your work in ECS, both as an Associate Dean and as a Professor, as well. How do these things intersect for you? Great teaching, working with your students and what are the main areas that you focus on with them?
Michael Thompson:Well, great question. I'm an Associate Dean for Undergraduate Program, so I care deeply about undergraduate education and we're looking at the way to train the best engineers and computer scientists that we can. And so in my role, I help recruit talented students to Baylor. Baylor draws some fantastic students and so I'm working with recruiting. And then, we want to give the best experience possible, so I'm the supervisor for the advising office and we have some talented advisors that help hold the student's hand and guide them in the right direction through these rigorous majors that we have. And then another thing that I do is, I'm in charge of making sure that students are doing well in their classes and progressing through their degrees. And actually, that's part of where the Cherry Award has had some impact, because what I've come to realize is that great teaching extends down to conversations that you have with students.
Michael Thompson:And so sometimes, I run across some students that aren't doing as well as they had hoped, say for example, they might be on academic probation. And so I feel like I have an empathetic ear that students can give me some feedback about what's going wrong with their current situation, how they can make improvements and sometimes, that improvement is, I really need to change majors into the major that God is calling me to be in. But sometimes, it's just making some small adjustments. And I think that's part of great teaching, is knowing when to put that encouraging word in and try to redirect students. And so, I feel very grateful to have participated in the Cherry Award for all these years and I think it's given me some insight on how to sneak that word in to the student at the right time. I think of great teachers in my life. Derek, you probably have a great teacher that you can think of.
Derek Smith:I do. I do. I could, boy, it's probably hard to narrow it down to just one, but I think I actually had one really great teacher, both high school and college randomly enough, who taught English in high school and speech to me in college, and he was very encouraging and a fantastic teacher and definitely had an impact, Mr. Clark.
Michael Thompson:Mr. Clark.
Derek Smith:Mr. Clark, yes.
Michael Thompson:It's always good to have a shout out to your own personal Cherry Award winner.
Michael Thompson:For me, it was Dr. Sherbal in high school photography who gave me the right words at the right time to point my career in the direction of engineering. And then I had a math professor, Dr. Guzman, from Texas A&M, who said, "Hey, Thompson, what do you think about that PhD degree," and pointed me in that direction. And so my point is, that great teaching comes with conversation that you have with students. You never know when that word that you say is going to make an impact on a student life.
Michael Thompson:And I think the Cherry Award is all about that.
Derek Smith:That's fantastic. Well, you've done a great job of really painting the picture about that and how it's impacted your own work and your students, as well. As we wind down, I want to ask you if listeners are interested in this, or are there ways that they can experience this when faculty are on campus, or ways that people can be involved in supporting this?
Michael Thompson:Oh, great, yes. I'm glad to have the opportunity to promote this. We have the Cherry Award website that's hosted by Baylor. And so to find that on Google, if you just Google Cherry Award, that'll be our first hit. And so one of the things you can do is, you can watch, we record all these public lectures, and so it's like a Ted Talk only better. So you can watch these lectures and get a taste of the great teaching that we are bringing here at Baylor. And then throughout the course of when a recipient is on campus, there's often some public things that get posted and so look for those opportunities as well, to engage. That'd be great.
Derek Smith:That's so great. Just Google Cherry Award, Baylor Cherry Award, and you will find all that. Well, Dr. Thompson, thanks so much for taking the time today. Really appreciate you sharing and unpacking this world for us a little bit and we're excited to see Dr. Lynn's, Dr. Lee's impact, excuse me, on campus here in the near future.
Michael Thompson:Great, thanks Derek. Glad to be here.
Derek Smith:Thank you so much. Michael Thompson, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Baylor School of Engineering and Computer Science and Committee Chair for Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.