Rob Thomas reflects on national honor

UMW News Bureau

A copy of Montana Western professor Rob Thomas' acceptance speech as the Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year, given at the 2009 U.S. Professors of the Year luncheon at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 19, 2009. Editor's Note: The following is the full text from University of Montana Western professor of environmental science Rob Thomas' acceptance speech as the Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year, given at the 2009 U.S. Professors of the Year luncheon at the Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 19, 2009. Early in my education I had a professor who would say that we should burn down the buildings and buy vans. His point, of course, was that lecture-based learning was unsatisfying to him and that we students should learn through experience. I prefer to call it aboriginal learning, something we lost in most of higher education when we developed the mass-production educational model with the “sage on the stage” speaking words of wisdom to the dutiful students taking notes. This system remains dominant in higher education because the class schedule is designed for lecturing. What else can you do with 50-minute classes that meet three days per week? Adding to the problem are students trying to juggle five or more classes at the same time, causing panic as they try to decide whether to study for the chemistry test or write the report for their history class. Creative students have figured out how to share this load by dividing up the job of getting the notes. There is an alternative to this madness, but it requires we faculty to relinquish the podium, to reduce our focus on teaching terminology and empower our students to focus on real and meaningful projects that inspire their need to learn more information. Ultimately, this is only possible with a class schedule that provides large blocks of time. The solution is to teach one class at a time. In 2005, my campus courageously became the first public university in U.S. history to adopt a schedule where students take one class at a time for 18 instructional days. Students spend their time working with professors on real projects that challenge them to learn practical skills while using the data they gather to solve actual problems. As a result, students build portfolios filled with examples of what they can actually do. During these hard economic times, documentation of professional skills provides a tremendous advantage over a transcript listing of classes. My role in this historic change is best left to others to determine. 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. The investment of time required to make such a thing happen must come at the expense of something else, so I am deeply grateful to my family, Anneliese, Abbey and Haley, for their love and tolerance of my all-consuming passion for this project. My passion for education came from my parents, who understood its importance even though they were themselves not college graduates. They have my deepest gratitude, and in return I will pass this gift – this passion for education – to my girls. My sincere thanks to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education for their recognition of our efforts to improve undergraduate education at the University of Montana Western. —Rob Thomas