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Updated 10:00 AM April 6, 2009

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Wright honored as Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year

Steven Wright's demonstrated excellence in undergraduate teaching over 32 years and across 12 required and technical elective courses "has earned the respect of his students and colleagues," Provost Teresa Sullivan says.
(File Photo/Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

And now that quality has earned The Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of civil and environmental engineering a state Distinguished Professor of the Year Award. He is one of three professors from Michigan's 15 public universities selected for the third annual award presented by the President's Council, State Universities of Michigan.

"It is a major honor to be recognized at that kind of level. There are obviously lots of really great faculty here," Wright says.

"This is the best job in the world and one cannot imagine what could be better. After all, we are working with these people who should be at the peak of their personal development, typically leaving family behind for the first time and beginning to shape their own philosophies and world views," he says. "To be allowed the opportunity to participate in that is remarkable and something not to be taken lightly."

"Higher education is one of the few good investments in these hard economic times," says Michael Boulus, executive director of the President's Council. "We need to honor those who continue to contribute to its success and produce well-prepared and intelligent graduates of Michigan's 15 public universities."

Wright's teaching has focused on sustainable development and ethics that grows out of his work studying controversial hydroelectric projects in Chile. He used what he learned about this topic as the basis for design projects in Engineering 100, Introduction to Engineering.

Under the auspices of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, he then developed a second upper-level undergraduate course that included bringing students to Chile to study these issues in more depth in collaboration with Chilean students and faculty.

One student wrote the following about the trip: "This invaluable experience has forced me to think and collaborate with students and professors of diverse backgrounds and cultures about a complex issue in Chile that reveals just how complicated the term 'sustainability' really is."

In her nomination letter, Sullivan wrote, "When students are exposed to real-world data and asked to weigh the impact of their decisions on the broader society, they are being prepared for the leadership roles we hope they will take on after they graduate from the university. Professor Wright's career has embodied this ideal. The Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year Award is an honor he most richly deserves."

"My approach is not to approach students as consumers of education, but to enlist them as partners in the educational process," Wright wrote in a statement of teaching philosophy. To make this happen, Wright says he learns students' names, approaches all interactions with enthusiasm to demonstrate engagement in that partnership, acknowledges all questions as valid, engages undergraduate students in his research projects, advises student organizations and participates in social activities.

One student wrote, "Dr. Wright's passion for the subject, demeanor with students and creativity resulted in the creation of one of those rare courses that challenged me and left me wanting to know more."

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