David Prince: James D. Clowes Award for the Advancement of Learning Communities

David Prince

This year’s Clowes award not only recognizes K. David Prince’s 25 years spent building a learning community at the Engineering Academic Study Center, the award also prompted a donor to commit half a million dollars toward the effort.

The engineering alum, who wishes to remain anonymous, donated $500,000 this spring after hearing about Prince’s award. The award is for Prince’s efforts to recruit and retain students interested in engineering as a major, especially underrepresented minorities, women and students who are the first in their families to attend college.

The money will go for such things as additional scholarships, expanded tutoring, an endowment and improving the cluster of rooms that make up the study center. For example, the traditional white boards hung on the walls could be replaced with floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall white boards.

Oh, yes, the importance of white boards.

The ones in the room where Prince was interviewed for UW Today were brimming with equations worked over just an hour earlier by students in one of Prince’s workshops. The workshops, worth one academic credit, are meant to hone skills students need to succeed in their introductory math, physics or chemistry courses. Workshop participants, usually 10 to 20 students, meet twice a week.

These sessions are not about doing homework, they are meant to help students “learn how to learn,” Prince says. It’s a collaborative process, usually with students standing at the white boards or clustered at tables.

“David’s uncanny ability to convince students to work in groups (many of whom were not encouraged to do it in high school) to solve challenging story problems in mathematics has had a lasting effect on many cohorts over the years,” wrote Emile Pitre, an associate vice president with the UW’s minority affairs and diversity office.

“There is a strong body of research evidence which supports the notion that the presence of study groups and other forms of learning communities are critical to the success for those students who are enrolled in gateway courses to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines. For minority, especially underrepresented minority students at predominantly white institutions, organized academic enrichment and support can make a huge difference between persisting and graduating with engineering and science degrees and either switching majors or dropping out of college altogether.”

Prince, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from the University of Denver, says, “It’s more than just the math. It’s everything that impacts their ability to achieve high marks in math.” Thus Prince’s teaching philosophy starts with the individual – his or her own thought processes and what impacts those processes.

UW senior Maurice Fabien writes that Prince “tells his students the importance of mental, physical and spiritual fitness, in order to keep a good balance in our lives as college students.”

Fabien remembers when he first encountered Prince, writing: “His style of teaching was absolutely shocking. In high school I was so conditioned to memorize formulas that I was not prepared at all for college level mathematics . . . Dave’s method of teaching requires the student to be active. What Dave does is ask the student a series of easier-to-answer questions about the problem. This allows the student to figure out the problem without someone just giving them the answer.”

Prince says another way to facilitate learning communities is for students to teach. So after they learn something, he urges them to find three peers and explain it to them.

“Many prospective engineering students come to the University without sufficient preparation in mathematics – this is a significant roadblock in students’ successful completion of the pre-engineering mathematics course,” writes Matt O’Donnell, dean of engineering. “Dave has been a major resource for students who need additional preparation, and as a result of studying in his workshops, and working with his staff in the student center, scores of students have successfully completed engineering degrees at the University of Washington.”

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