Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

U-M's Coppola a finalist for $250,000 Cherry Award for Great Teaching

Chemistry professor Brian Coppola, frequently honored for his teaching talents and techniques, is one of three finalists for the 2012 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching.

Conferred biennially by Baylor University, the accolade is the only national teaching award presented by a college or university to an individual for exceptional teaching and carries a monetary reward of $250,000. The winner will be announced in spring 2012.

  Brian Coppola

"I am obviously pleased and proud to have been selected as a finalist," says Coppola, who in 2001 was named an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, a distinction that honors U-M faculty whose commitment to and investment in undergraduate teaching has had significant impact on students. "I think awards like this are important because, at least for a little while, our core missions of teaching and learning come into the spotlight."

Coppola's approach to teaching centers on the concept of learning communities, where interaction and exchange are encouraged. His primary academic field is organic chemistry, but he also publishes widely on educational philosophy, practice and assessment and has won many university, state and national awards for his work in science education.

"Most of the innovations that I have developed over the years involved partnerships where students take on increasingly larger levels of responsibility for teaching each other — and me — and working together in order to accomplish things that no individual could do alone, at least not as effectively or efficiently," says Coppola, who co-directs the Instructional Development and Educational Assessment Institute (IDEA), a joint project of LSA and the School of Education.

Just as scientists-in-training learn by collaborating with senior scientists on research, IDEA gives students who are interested in academic careers the chance to collaborate with faculty on teaching projects. The institute also offers opportunities for local middle school and high school teachers to collaborate with U-M students and faculty.

"Higher education is under all sorts of pressure these days," Coppola says. "Increasingly, many of the most popular techniques, driven by cost savings, seem to take face-to-face interaction out of the picture, and focus on subject mastery as the primary goal of an education. I think that's a mistake. To me, bringing people together onto a campus provides an incredibly underappreciated yet indispensible part of one's education, namely, creating long-term relationships across the intergenerational intellectual community. Passed down from my own teachers, through me, to my students, there is a chain of information, values and simply enough, ways of thinking about the world, which relies on how we interact and relate to one another."

Coppola also is associate chair of the Chemistry Department and associate director for the U-M-Peking University Joint Institute in Beijing, China.

"In China, where I spend time thinking about the differences between our educational systems, the sense of academic family is actually embedded in the language," he says. "On campus, whether you are among undergraduates in the dorms, or in a class, or in a research group, students and faculty refer to one another as older and younger siblings when they talk about the academic relationship, and it comes with all the implied responsibilities and obligations that those words imply."

Coppola received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1978 from the University of New Hampshire and his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. He joined the U-M faculty in 1986 and was promoted to full professor of chemistry in 2001.

Among his previous teaching honors: Selection in 2009 as the CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year (for doctoral institutions); the 2006 James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry from the American Chemical Society; the 2004 CASE/Carnegie State of Michigan Professor of the Year; the 2004 Kendall-Hunt Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher Award from the Society for College Science Teachers; the 2003 Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teacher Award from the National Science Teachers Association; and the 1999 Amoco Foundation Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

The Cherry Award program, created by Baylor alumnus Robert Foster Cherry, is designed to honor outstanding teachers, to stimulate discussion in the academic world about the value of teaching and to encourage departments and institutions to value their own great teachers.

Each finalist will receive $15,000 plus $10,000 for his or her home department to foster the development of teaching skills. In addition, each finalist will present a series of lectures at Baylor during fall 2011 and also a Cherry Award lecture on their home campus during the upcoming academic year.

The eventual winner will receive an additional $250,000 as well as another $25,000 for his or her home department and will teach in residence at Baylor during fall 2012 or spring 2013.