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Rob Thomas selected 2009 U.S. Professor of the Year

UMW News Bureau

U.S. Professor of the Year Rob ThomasUniversity of Montana Western environmental sciences professor Rob Thomas has been named Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

The two groups chose Thomas as the recipient of the prestigious award from a field of over 300 professors from baccalaureate colleges and universities across the United States.

Judges selected national winners based on four criteria: impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former undergraduate students.

Anthony Bryk, president of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said the award is a recognition of work that goes far beyond the campus classroom.

“These dedicated teachers are not only leading their students to develop a deep understanding of their respective fields—geology, sociology, psychology and chemistry—but they are also mirroring examples of scholarship, citizenship and community involvement that ultimately will lead to contributions toward a better society and indeed a better world,” Bryk said.

Thomas has been a faculty member at Montana Western for 16 years. In that time he helped transform the institution into the first and only public university in the United States to offer block scheduling. Under this scheduling system, students take one class at a time, three hours per day for eighteen days earning the same credits over a year as students do in traditional multiple-course scheduling models.

Experience One (X1), as the scheduling program is known at Montana Western, is in its fifth full year at the Dillon, Mont. campus.

For Thomas, the award is as much about the entire university’s innovations as it is one professor’s accomplishments.

“The facts are impressive,” Thomas said. “This university had two degrees and was dying. A small group of committed, visionary people turned this campus around. The award itself is recognition of what we have done to make this campus one of the most unique undergraduate experiences in the country. If this award is being given to me in any way, shape or form because of my role with X1, my role was one of many important roles to make this happen. This happened because of the courage of the faculty to change everything they know about how to teach undergraduate students.”

Referring to the “experiential learning” that is characteristic of the X1 model, Thomas points to the hands-on learning and research opportunities available to students under block scheduling.

“I don’t think experiences for undergraduates doing the type of research we do for classes like these exist,” Thomas said. “There just isn’t time. The memorize-regurgitate method is not inspiring. Education is about motivating, and this is a new way of motivating by doing.”

Thomas said by replacing the “sage on the stage” education model professors at Montana Western are able to regularly engage their students in the field and in real-world situations they will encounter as graduate students and professionals. Small class sizes also foster more intimate, mentorship-like relationships between professors and students. Thomas calls this “aboriginal learning,” and it is at the core of his teaching.

Thomas takes full advantage of the large blocks of time he is able to spend with his students in the field. University programs from all over the country come to southwestern Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Area to study geology, but, as Thomas proudly puts it, “Southwestern Montana is our lab.” This natural lab not only includes nearby Yellowstone National Park but also unique stretches of the Continental Divide and a myriad of wilderness, mountains ranges, lakes and rivers.

In November 2008, Thomas and his Environmental Field Studies students performed an unprecedented analysis of stream restoration on Montana’s upper Big Hole River. In 18 days (one block), the students conducted their analysis and drafted a 150-page assessment report on their collaborative effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and local ranchers to help preserve the endangered fluvial Arctic grayling fish.

Such work is all a part of what Thomas calls “teaching the salient concepts of a particular discipline.” He said the results are greater engagement in the classroom and better student retention both in knowledge and enrollment.

“There’s no falling through the cracks here, and it’s not coddling,” Thomas said. “The block takes the highest level of commitment and passion and enthusiasm.”

For Thomas, who left a tenure track position in the Ivy League at Vassar College because he recognized Montana Western’s potential, his and Montana’s Western’s recent successes are particularly gratifying.

“It’s further acknowledgement of Experience One’s success along with a great year for the campus as a whole,” Thomas said, referring to Montana Western’s record enrollment in 2009 (including a 24.5 percent increase in transfer students) and the university’s ranking as 18th in U.S. News & World Report’s 2009 “America’s Best Colleges” for baccalaureate universities in the western region.

Still, Thomas insisted his award is a reflection of collective efforts taken by his fellow faculty at this small but innovative university in remote Montana.

“My role in this historic change is best left to others to determine,” Thomas said. “However, I know that change of this magnitude requires shared vision, hard work by many people, and the courage to take a risk and try something new. I thank my colleagues for caring enough about the students to take this bold step forward. They have made my working life so much more interesting and worthwhile.”