Best & Brightests  
 



UW AWARDS 2008 HOMEPAGE

UWEEK.ORG HOMEPAGE

DISTINGUISHED TEACHING AWARD
Ben Kerr, Biology
Gowri Shankar, Business Administration
Jaime Olavarria, Psychology
Jamie Walker, Ceramics
Julia Parrish, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences / Biology
Rebecca Aanerud, Women Studies
Richard Knuth, Education Administration

EXCELLENCE IN TEACHING AWARD
Fernanda Oyarzun & Chris Himes , Biology
Rachel Goldberg, English

DISTINGUISHED LIBRARIAN AWARD
Theresa Mudrock, UW Libraries

DISTINGUISHED STAFF AWARD
Hendrik Simons, Nuclear Physics Laboratory
Mona Pitre-Collins, Undergraduate Scholarship Office
Philip Mote, Climate Impacts Group
Robin Bennett, Medical Genetics
Sue Park, Facilities Services

DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTIONS TO LIFELONG LEARNING AWARD
John Schaufelberger, Construction Management

OUTSTANDING PUBLIC SERVICE AWARD
Nancy Amidei, Social Work

JAMES D. CLOWES AWARD FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING COMMUNITIES
Lance Bennett, Political Science / Communication

S. STERLING MUNRO PUBLIC SERVICE TEACHING AWARD
Denise Wilson, Electrical Engineering

DAVID B. THORUD LEADERSHIP AWARD
Judy Mahoney, College of Engineering
Kathleen Woodward, Simpson Center for the Humanities

MARSHA L. LANDOLT DISTINGUISHED GRADUATE MENTOR AWARD
Tom Quinn, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

ALUMNUS SUMMA LAUDE DIGNATA
Beverly Cleary, Children's Author

ALUMNI ASSOCIATION DISTINGUISHED SERVICE AWARD
Robb Weller, Television Producer and Host

PRESIDENT'S MEDAL
June Shujun Peng and Royce Anderson

"In science, truth is provisional. I want to get the spirit of science across, to help students recognize that science is more than a collection of facts."


Ben Kerr


It almost sounds like a riddle from Alice in Wonderland: How is a microwave oven in a public area like a disease outbreak?

These are the kinds of provocative questions that Ben Kerr, one of this year's Distinguished Teaching Award winners, uses to keep students on the edge of their seats in biology classes.

"In biology, you're never more than a step away from sex and death. These are themes that generate immediate interest," he says. "The concepts cut across disciplines, with material that can be drawn from political science, economics, the arts and popular culture. They deal with universal human conditions."

Kerr, an assistant professor, was described by department chair Tom Daniel in this way: "No assistant professor in this department or any other one I have observed has ever achieved the level of innovation and engagement that Dr. Kerr has developed in his teaching portfolio."

Another colleague, Associate Professor Carl Bergstrom, said, "His lectures are masterpieces that have to be seen to be believed."

Kerr says the key to his success is listening to his students, and then being willing to improvise. He calls his approach "planned uncertainty," creating a tangible level of excitement in his classroom.

Just talking with Kerr, it is easy to feel his own excitement, as if he were telling the story for the first time.

"In science, truth is provisional. I want to get the spirit of science across, to help students recognize that science is more than a collection of facts. Like all of us, scientists come to the world with certain ideas about how things work. Ultimately, these ideas are thrown at the feet of the natural world. While you can control what experiments you run and how you take data, you don't control what the world tells you. Based on this feedback, you may change your mind, alter your hypothesis."

Kerr points out that Seattle is a microcosm for exploring the nature of science. Besides being a hip, liberal city, it is also home to the Discovery Institute, one of the most active promoters of Intelligent Design, which he discusses in his class on evolution. "I like to deal with the elephant in the room, but respectfully. I believe we can separate metaphysics from methodology. While some view evolutionary biology as in conflict with religious beliefs, I view them as existing in completely different realms."

Kerr strives to keep the level of discourse high and to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. He goes to great lengths to emphasize that, for some students, human evolution is a sensitive topic -- and the class is not about questioning their beliefs. "This is a conversation about the natural world. Because evolutionary theory ties together disparate observations, ranging from fossil discoveries to biogeographic and genetic patterns, biologists see the theory as a robust and encompassing account."

In class, Kerr points out that science is about "creating a dialogue with the natural world," and that some prominent evolutionary biologists are in fact religious. "Science is a lot like normal life. In a way, it is simply a grander version of the same kind of inductive processes we use every day," he says. Kerr also works to engage students in discussions. "Science is a social endeavor," he says.

Kerr says teaching for him is very much like doing science: In science, the interaction between a scientist and the experimental environment changes both; in teaching the interaction of student and teacher also changes both, Kerr believes. Cause becomes effect and vice versa. The important distinction, for Kerr, is that a deft touch is required for the classroom environment to create this kind of magic.

"The instructors I have admired the most orchestrated the class so subtly that they seemingly removed themselves and let the students conduct the journey on their own."

This is an illusion born of hard work, according to Jevin West, one of his TAs. "As a TA, I have worked with few professors that even come close to the preparation that Ben puts into his classes, labs and study sessions," he wrote in support of the award. "Our department and our university are fortunate...to have such an outstanding example of what teaching can and should be."