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March 4, 2010

2 profs win A&S Bellet teaching awards

belletsWinners of the 2010 Tina and David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award are Paul M. Gartside, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, and Adam Leibovich, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The Bellet teaching awards were established in 1998 by School of Arts and Sciences alumnus David Bellet and his wife, Tina, to recognize outstanding and innovative undergraduate teaching in Arts and Sciences.

Full-time Pittsburgh campus faculty who have taught undergraduates in Arts and Sciences during the past three years are eligible. An awards committee appointed by Juan Manfredi, Arts and Sciences associate dean for Undergraduate Studies, evaluates nominees’ teaching skills based on student-teaching and peer evaluations, student testimonials and dossiers submitted by the nominees. Candidates must have at least three nominators.

Each award recipient will receive a cash prize of $5,000. The winners will be honored at a dinner April 7.

Paul Gartside came to Pitt as an assistant professor in 2000, following a three-year stint as a junior lecturer at the University of Oxford, where he earned his BA in 1990 and his DPhil in 1993.

He was a European Union presidential postdoctoral fellow at the University of Galway, and a Royal Society postdoctoral fellow at Moscow State University and the University of Auckland.

Gartside was granted tenure in 2004 and currently serves as the graduate director for the mathematics department. His research interests include general and geometric topology, especially topological algebra.

He has taught a number of undergraduate courses including Introduction to Analysis; Calculus 1 and 2; Honors Calculus; Introduction to Theoretical Analysis; Theoretical 1-Variable Calculus; Introduction to Abstract Algebraic Systems; Topology, and The Big Ideas of Mathematics, which he and his colleagues developed through a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

In his award letter, Gartside was praised for “the high quality of your teaching dossier and the strong letters submitted by your colleagues and students [that] attest to your success as a teacher.”

According to a letter nominating Gartside for the Bellet award, “One of Paul’s major contributions to new teaching initiatives in the department is the development of the capstone course for undergraduate math majors, The Big Ideas of Mathematics. He also helped develop a calculus sequence for the Swanson School of Engineering’s integrated engineering curriculum.”

Other supporting materials cited his enthusiasm and dedication and a willingness to try new classroom techniques, as well as an innovative teaching approach that utilizes technology, research projects, class discussions and other tools to enhance student learning.

Before he had a chance to open his award letter, Gartside learned he won the Bellet from one of his topology students, who poked her head into his office and congratulated him on the teaching award. “I looked completely surprised and confused. So my first reaction was complete confusion! But then I felt pleased and honored,” he said.

Gartside told the University Times he was drawn to physics initially as his field of study. “I never especially liked math at school. It was all about calculations and formulae. Unlike physics, which had been my big interest up to that point, I could not see how it all fitted together conceptually,” Gartside said.

“Then I read some books about math by mathematicians, and I was amazed real people had created all this math! And people were still discovering new things. I had thought that math just existed and was finished. Also I read some more advanced math books and I realized I was fascinated by ‘real’ math, and I wanted to make beautiful new math myself. So I turned from physics and went to Oxford to study math as my undergraduate degree.”

Teaching does not come naturally to him, but rather grew out of his passion for mathematics and his interest in sharing that passion.

“I think of myself as first and foremost a mathematician. I am passionately interested in all aspects of math: discovering new math and learning about other people’s work,” Gartside said. “Being a teacher is part of being a mathematician. How could I be so excited by math and not wish to share that? I would not say I’m a ‘natural’ teacher. Teaching is something I have worked at to develop and improve. But helping my students learn and understand has become very important to me. I think it is important to let students know that math is a vibrant subject, created by real people, which underlies much of modern technology.”

Regarding his teaching philosophy, Gartside said, “First of all I make time for myself to teach deliberately, I mean with thought and care. I think about my teaching: objectives, content, lecture-room management, etc.”

He also reflects on what worked and what didn’t in each class, to uncover student misconceptions and develop methods of engaging students. “I explore new methods, using problems to ‘set the scene’ rather than testing for competence,” Gartside said.

“Second, I am committed to be personally engaged. I try to model through my commitment and perseverance these same qualities in my students,” he said. “I spend as much time as it takes to help students learn how to construct proofs or work on research projects. I have high expectations for myself and for students, to perform to the best of our abilities and not underestimate those abilities. Demand a lot, give a lot and you will get a lot,” Gartside said.

“Third, I put problem solving and communication at the heart of learning,” which includes both problem solving for fun and problem solving with practical applications, he said. “Either way, problems motivate, engage and provide context.”

Problem solving typically involves experimentation and conjecture prior to verification, he noted. “Verification in math means proof, and I emphasize that communication is at the heart of proofs. An argument must be refined until it effectively communicates to others an irrefutable justification of the claim.”

Adam Leibovich, who came to Pitt as an assistant professor in 2003, was named associate professor in 2008 and currently serves as co-director of graduate studies in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Prior to joining the University faculty, Leibovich was a postdoctoral research fellow at Carnegie Mellon and a postdoctoral research fellow at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. While at Fermilab, Leibovich also had visiting postdoctoral positions at  Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon.

He received his PhD in theoretical physics from California Institute of Technology in 1997 and his BA in physics in 1992 from Cornell, where he also earned Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi and Golden Key membership.

Leibovich’s awards and grants include a Millikan fellowship from Cal Tech; a $293,000 NSF three-year grant; a $10,000 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award; a $411,083 five-year NSF CAREER grant; a $100,000 Cottrell  Scholar Award, and, most recently, a $379,930 NSF three-year grant.

During the past three years, Leibovich has taught undergraduate courses including Mathematical Methods in Physics; Introduction to Physics 1; Introduction to Physics for Scientists and Engineers 1, and Basic Physics for Scientists and Engineers 1 and 2.

In supporting materials for the Bellet award, departmental colleagues called Leibovich “a remarkable and extremely effective teacher. He is considered one of the department’s best teachers based on student and peer evaluations. Dr. Leibovich’s main strength lies in the way in which he engages students. The students attending his classes are instantly put at ease. His personality is completely non-threatening. What results is a classroom atmosphere very conducive to learning.”

Department chair David Turnshek wrote that Leibovich’s contributions to the department’s undergraduate teaching program have been outstanding. “He has successfully implemented new and proven teaching methods to our department to keep us competitive. He meets his teaching responsibility with enthusiasm and diligence, and he is committed to exposing each undergraduate to a positive physics educational experience.”

Leibovich told the University Times he was flattered to win the Bellet award. “It’s really a great acknowledgment for teachers,” Leibovich said. “We are mainly a research university to the extent our promotional criteria are mostly research-related and teaching does not necessarily always get its due recognition. So having awards like this is wonderful recognition.”

Physics became his specialty at a young age, Leibovich said, partly because he enjoyed learning about how things work and partly because his favorite reading material early on was in science, math and science fiction. He also was influenced by the “Mechanical Universe,” a multi-part telecourse filmed at his alma mater, Cal Tech.

“I always liked explaining things, but I definitely was not born a teacher,” Leibovich said. “As a kid I was unbelievably shy. When I had to give a talk or present something, even as a TA, I was still incredibly nervous beforehand.”

He added, “I really prepared myself for those occasions and I think that also helped me develop as a teacher, but I’m surprised, actually, that I ended up liking teaching, but I really do.”

Regarding his teaching philosophy, “The vast majority of students are taking physics not because they want to but because it is required for their major,” Leibovich said, adding that many students even have a fear of physics.

Complicating that, he said, physics traditionally is taught in the lecture format, which is effective only for some students.

“I think active engagement is the best way for a student to learn. The best way to teach concepts and to maintain student interest is to have hands-on experience, good student-professor interactions and a comfortable learning environment,” Leibovich said.

While a class of 200 students never will reproduce the feeling of a small seminar course, “I try to make all my courses from the large undergraduate class to the small upper-level undergraduate and graduate course have a feeling of a small informal classroom,” he said.

To accomplish that, Leibovich works to make students feel comfortable enough to ask questions before, during or after class.

Students doing poorly in his courses are given more personal attention. “I ask him or her to come talk to me, so we can figure out a way to improve the student’s performance, and I encourage the students to come weekly to office hours to assess the challenges the student is facing. I then customize the weekly sessions to the student’s needs,” he said.

Leibovich utilizes a peer instruction method, where conceptual questions are incorporated into lectures for students to discuss and then answer anonymously using remote-controlled devices, allowing quick assessment of student understanding. “This allows the instructor to correct misconceptions and go over material that may have been confusing. In addition, it’s fun,” he noted.

Leibovich also created a pilot program for teaching in a studio-style classroom, where the instructor acts as a facilitator rather than a lecturer and students work collaboratively, with the measurable objectives of understanding basic physics concepts; developing problem-solving, laboratory and technology skills; improving communication, interpersonal and questioning skills, and developing cognitive attitudes and expectations favorable for learning physics with deeper understanding.

“The advantages to teaching with a studio-style model compared to the traditional lecture style include: The ability to solve problems is improved; conceptual understanding is increased; attitudes are improved; failure rates are drastically reduced, and performance in follow-up physics and engineering classes is positively impacted. The basic philosophy behind the method is to give students an environment that is conducive to learning,” he said.

“Every student is different and each has a different way of learning. I really enjoy teaching, engaging students and leading them to broaden their horizons. To make the students interested in the material, I do my best to stay enthusiastic and energetic at all times, and keep a fun and relaxed atmosphere.”

—Peter Hart

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