Reaching the Obama administration’s goal of more college degrees by 2020 requires an “uncompromising” commitment to quality teaching and educational outcomes in higher education, said Dr. Eduardo Ochoa, assistant education secretary, in celebrating the nation’s outstanding college professors on Thursday.
Calling such faculty essential to build “a thinking nation in the 21st century,” Ochoa said quality instruction is integral to the president’s plan to raise the proportion of young adults with a college degree from the current rate of 40 percent to 60 percent by the end of the decade.
“This college goal is the ‘North Star’ of our work at the Department of Education,” Ochoa said at the U.S. Professors of the Year awards luncheon in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Calling the winning professors a “shining example of excellence,” he said that quality faculty members are critical for increased student engagement and, ultimately, achievement.
As assistant secretary for post-secondary education, Ochoa has championed innovative instructional practices and a focus on effectively serving disadvantaged and underrepresented students. Many honored faculty members at the event were lauded for similar work, as professors from a community college and a Hispanic-serving institution claimed two of the top four awards.
Among the national winners was Dr. Kathryn Wetzel, mathematics professor and department chairman at Texas’ Amarillo College, who created a free Math Outreach Center for students that is open 60 hours a week and provides more than 22,000 tutoring sessions a year at the community college. Prior to the center’s launch, the college provided only about 1,000 such tutoring sessions, she said.
“I believe that a fundamental need of every human being is to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Wetzel, a one-time engineer who has taught at the college for 25 years. Students who regularly attend the center have realized gains in their math achievement, some increasing by as many as two letter grades.
Another national winner, Ursula Shepherd of the University of New Mexico, an HSI, earned praise for her work to promote peer learning, critical thinking and interactive learning as a professor of biology. Among other duties, Shepherd created a new science curriculum for the honors program and mentored more minority, first-generation and female students in pursuing doctoral programs. “My work doesn’t stop at the classroom door,” she said.
Other national winners were Steven Volk, history professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, and Stephen Chew, professor and psychology chairman at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. The program also recognized 27 other faculty members as outstanding in their states. Winners were selected from among nearly 300 nominees nationally.