By Stewart MacInnis
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 26 - April 2, 1998
Knowing each of his students, inspiring them to do their best, and teaching them how to think are some of the reasons listed by students for nominating Michael J. Ellerbrock for the university's Sporn Award.
"I make a point to show my students respect as human beings and as adults," Ellerbrock said. "It's gratifying that I have been able to earn their respect in turn."
The Sporn Award for Teaching Introductory Subjects is the only teaching award given by the Virginia Tech student body. The award was established in honor of Philip J. Sporn and his wife Sadie. The winner of the award is also inducted into the university's Academy of Teaching Excellence. Ellerbrock is to receive the award at Founders Day.
Ellerbrock is an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics. He was nominated for the award by students from his introductory class, "Macroeconomics of the Food and Fiber System." He routinely has more than 200 students in the course during spring semesters.
"I work hard to learn all their names," he said. "I also have them call me Mike. In my eyes they are adults, whether they think so or not, and I always treat them as adults. That includes my expectations. I have high expectations of them for their sakes. I don't back down on that one bit."
That means more than being friendly, though. Ellerbrock challenges the students to "draw out" their wisdom, the original meaning of education.
"Putting knowledge, facts, figures and ideas in the heads of students is a part of it," he said. "But the ultimate goal of teaching is to draw out the wisdom of the students. That's an inherent capacity within each student. It can't be conveyed; it can only be nurtured by the professor."
Ellerbrock's ability to involve students in the class and in the learning process was cited by one student as a strength that made a potentially dry subject come to life. Others pointed to the effect his caring and respectful attitude had on them.
"He helps students to love learning in general, not just economics," said one student in a nomination letter. "In one lecture, Dr. Ellerbrock was able to change my entire interpretation of life and who I was. He showed me a person who I wanted to be and inspired me enough to begin changing things in my life to become more like this person."
Ellerbrock joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 1992. He previously had been a faculty member at the University of Florida and at East Texas State University. He earned a bachelor's degree from Texas A&M University, and earned his master's and doctoral degrees from Clemson University. In addition to his duty as a professor at Virginia Tech, he is the director of the Center for Economic Education.
By Liz Crumbley
MIT graduate Curtis Stern makes his thermodynamics classes a worthwhile experience, and his students have recognized his achievement by successfully nominating him for the College of Engineering Sporn Award.
Inside the sterile four walls of the mechanical engineering (ME) classroom, "Dr. Stern is easy to approach,...always has time for his students...and makes the class exciting and interactive," said Scott Chaney, an undergraduate who nominated Stern.
As J.B. Jones, a former department head of ME, describes Stern, he is a "model" faculty member. "Curt is kind and considerate, yet firm in his standards" in the classroom.
The admiration is mutual. Stern says he owes "a lot of the credit for his teaching success" to J.B. Jones. "I'd sit in his 8 a.m. class and teach my students later in the day, using many of his ideas. J.B. was always well-prepared...and he showed a lot of respect for the students and he expected a lot. He did some off-beat things like singing a song, something I've never done," Stern said with a smile. "But it is good to show the students that you have some personality, that you can make a fool of yourself, and that you are a real person.
"J.B.'s heart is in education and in teaching and I share that."
Stern was hired as a member of the ME faculty by Department Head Robert Comparin in 1986. At the time, he had no classroom teaching experience, but he knew he enjoyed answering the "why" question. But he also wants the students to interact with him, and he will often wait for the answers to come from them. One of his favorite challenges is guiding students to discover answers for themselves.
"I consider it a privilege to teach such motivated and talented students and I tell them so," Chaney said.
Chaney describes Stern as a teacher who "always has time for his students to discuss homework and concepts outside of the classroom." In turn, Stern reports, "I feel like I am a better teacher when the students ask questions and I know what they are grappling with. I invite them to come to my office. I particularly enjoyed interacting with one student last semester who would e-mail me his answers to concept questions from the text book, and then ask additional questions. He was inviting me to answer his questions and it stimulated my thinking."
Walter O'Brien, the current department head, describes Stern as "one of our best examples of a faculty member who gives constant attention to his responsibilities to provide quality teaching for our students....With careful concern and excellent organization of his work, he teaches large classes, while giving each student the needed personal attention. I am pleased, but not surprised, that his students have recognized him through their nomination for the Sporn Award."