Patricia H. Kelley is standing in a lecture hall at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a blanket fastened to her body.

Well, standing might not be the best word. She’s flapping her arms, pretending to fly.

Ms. Kelley, a geology professor, lives to teach about plants and animals long since dead. And on this day, she’s teaching, with the use of a blanket harnessed to her body, about how the pterodactyl’s wing membranes might have worked.

Ms. Kelley’s also been known to lie on her desk with a student holding a lollipop out in front of her head as this teacher of 35 years lunges for the candy to show students how prehistoric fish might have lunged onto land for the first time.

"I’m not concerned with embarrassing myself," Ms. Kelley said.

Ms. Kelley is one of four national winners of the 2014 U.S. Professors of the Year awards, which are being announced on Thursday. The other three winners are Laurie E. Grobman, a professor of English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Berks campus, John B. Wadach, a professor of engineering at Monroe Community College, in Rochester, N.Y., and Sheri D. Sheppard, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the national awards recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

The four recipients were chosen from a nominee pool of nearly 400 professors, and they will be honored in a ceremony at the National Press Club. Each will receive a $5,000 prize. Thirty winners were also named state Professors of the Year, and one was recognized from the District of Columbia.

The Chronicle talked to the winners about what makes their classrooms stand out.

 

Patricia H. Kelley

Patricia H. Kelley, Master's Universities and Colleges

Ms. Kelley, by her own words, is obsessed with Johnny Depp. All her students know it, too. It’s her "special thing."

Patricia H. KelleyOn the first day of class, Ms. Kelley tells her students about her obsession with the Hollywood actor, who has played characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. She then has all the students write down their own "special thing." It can be anything from a student loving to surf to hating a certain flavor of jelly bean.

Ms. Kelley does this, she says, so she can connect with each student and learn names. In classes where there are often 100 or more students, that’s a feat in itself.

But Ms. Kelley does a little bit more and finds a way to incorporate a different student’s "special thing" into each class

A surf-loving student, for example, might get a mention when Ms. Kelley talks about the waves caused by a prehistoric shifting of tectonic plates. So when the Japanese typhoon of 2011 hit the Asian nation, Ms. Kelley was able to restructure her lesson to discuss the geologic underpinnings of the typhoon—as well as bring in the surfing student’s "special thing."

John B. Wadach

John B. Wadach, Community Colleges

John B. Wadach likes to root for the underdog. He has to, he said, or no one else will.

John-WadachMr. Wadach realizes his students are not eating with silver spoons, and many of them face special challenges.

"I have a lot of enthusiasm and genuine empathy for what the students are going through," Mr. Wadach said. "The average community college student is not a trust-fund kid. A lot of them are working full time, going to school full time and not getting help from their parents."

One such student of Mr. Wadach’s, who immigrated to the United States from Burma with his wife and two children, works from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. and still manages the tough engineering workload.

"I asked him one day, ‘How do you do it? How do you sleep?’" Mr. Wadach said. "He said some days his only sleep is in his car in the parking lot before work."

It’s this type of student, Mr. Wadach said, who motivates him to be better.

"He comes with a positive attitude, he does his work, he wants to learn," Mr. Wadach said. "How can you not be motivated to work for these students?"

Laurie E. Grobman

Laurie E. Grobman, Baccalaureate Colleges

Laurie E. Grobman often leaves class with a stomach ache.

As an English and women’s-studies professor, Ms. Grobman hates to be the one to break the bad news to her students. But, she says, sexism and racism still exist.

Laurie-Grobman"It’s such a challenge because students get unhappy," she said. "It feels like sometimes they just get angry because they feel like I’m blaming them. I always try to say things like, "You, me or any white person have to understand how we benefit still today from everything that happened."

And in classes that center around race, class, gender and privilege, discussions often get heated.

"I do leave class with stomach aches a lot," Ms. Grobman, who’s been teaching for 20 years, said. "And I’ll begin the next class with a discussion with, ‘Let’s talk about what happened, what was said.’"

But at a college where about 73 percent of the students are white, Ms. Grobman said those heated talks are some of the best teaching tools.

"Every class is different, and you have to be ready to deal with whatever comes up in that discussion," Ms. Grobman said. "Sometimes, though, those are the most educational moments."

Sherri D. Sheppard

Sherri D. Sheppard, Doctoral and Research Universities

Sherri D. Sheppard worries a lot.

But, she adds, "worries can be turned into possibilities."

Sherri-SheppardMs. Sheppard worries her engineering students are learning how to build machines but aren’t learning to talk to one another. So she takes extra care in teaching not only elements of machine design or an introduction to solid mechanics, but also effective listening.

One of Ms. Sheppard’s favorite stories in her nearly three decades of teaching isn’t about a student’s prolific mechanical design. It’s about a student who learned to listen.

This student, Ms. Sheppard said, didn’t care to learn about communication, about listening. He wanted to build machines, to learn the nuts and bolts of engineering. Anything else was a waste of time.

Later, as an engineer for Lockheed Martin, he came back to visit Ms. Sheppard.

"He told me, ‘Now I get it. The listening is one of the most important things. You can have one of the most impressive pieces of technology, but if you can’t present this information, no one’s going to buy your idea.’" Ms. Sheppard said.

 

Patricia H. Kelley is standing in a lecture hall at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with a blanket fastened to her body.

Well, standing might not be the best word. She’s flapping her arms, pretending to fly.

Ms. Kelley, a geology professor, lives to teach about plants and animals long since dead. And on this day, she’s teaching, with the use of a blanket harnessed to her body, about how the pterodactyl’s wing membranes might have worked.

Ms. Kelley’s also been known to lie on her desk with a student holding a lollipop out in front of her head as this teacher of 35 years lunges for the candy to show students how prehistoric fish might have lunged onto land for the first time.

"I’m not concerned with embarrassing myself," Ms. Kelley said.

Ms. Kelley is one of four national winners of the 2014 U.S. Professors of the Year awards, which are being announced on Thursday. The other three winners are Laurie E. Grobman, a professor of English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University’s Berks campus, John B. Wadach, a professor of engineering at Monroe Community College, in Rochester, N.Y., and Sheri D. Sheppard, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the national awards recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

The four recipients were chosen from a nominee pool of nearly 400 professors, and they will be honored in a ceremony at the National Press Club. Each will receive a $5,000 prize. Thirty winners were also named state Professors of the Year, and one was recognized from the District of Columbia.

The Chronicle talked to the winners about what makes their classrooms stand out.

 

 

Master's Universities and Colleges

Patricia H. Kelley

Ms. Kelley, by her own words, is obsessed with Johnny Depp. All her students know it, too. It’s her "special thing."

On the first day of class, Ms. Kelley tells her students about her obsession with the Hollywood actor, who has played characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. She then has all the students write down their own "special thing." It can be anything from a student loving to surf to hating a certain flavor of jelly bean.

Ms. Kelley does this, she says, so she can connect with each student and learn names. In classes where there are often 100 or more students, that’s a feat in itself.

But Ms. Kelley does a little bit more and finds a way to incorporate a different student’s "special thing" into each class

A surf-loving student, for example, might get a mention when Ms. Kelley talks about the waves caused by a prehistoric shifting of tectonic plates. So when the Japanese typhoon of 2011 hit the Asian nation, Ms. Kelley was able to restructure her lesson to discuss the geologic underpinnings of the typhoon—as well as bring in the surfing student’s "special thing."

Community Colleges

John B. Wadach

John B. Wadach likes to root for the underdog. He has to, he said, or no one else will.

Mr. Wadach realizes his students are not eating with silver spoons, and many of them face special challenges.

"I have a lot of enthusiasm and genuine empathy for what the students are going through," Mr. Wadach said. "The average community college student is not a trust-fund kid. A lot of them are working full time, going to school full time and not getting help from their parents."

One such student of Mr. Wadach’s, who immigrated to the United States from Burma with his wife and two children, works from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. and still manages the tough engineering workload.

"I asked him one day, ‘How do you do it? How do you sleep?’" Mr. Wadach said. "He said some days his only sleep is in his car in the parking lot before work."

It’s this type of student, Mr. Wadach said, who motivates him to be better.

"He comes with a positive attitude, he does his work, he wants to learn," Mr. Wadach said. "How can you not be motivated to work for these students?"

Baccalaureate Colleges

Laurie E. Grobman

Laurie E. Grobman often leaves class with a stomach ache.

As an English and women’s-studies professor, Ms. Grobman hates to be the one to break the bad news to her students. But, she says, sexism and racism still exist.

"It’s such a challenge because students get unhappy," she said. "It feels like sometimes they just get angry because they feel like I’m blaming them. I always try to say things like, "You, me or any white person have to understand how we benefit still today from everything that happened."

And in classes that center around race, class, gender and privilege, discussions often get heated.

"I do leave class with stomach aches a lot," Ms. Grobman, who’s been teaching for 20 years, said. "And I’ll begin the next class with a discussion with, ‘Let’s talk about what happened, what was said.’"

But at a college where about 73 percent of the students are white, Ms. Grobman said those heated talks are some of the best teaching tools.

"Every class is different, and you have to be ready to deal with whatever comes up in that discussion," Ms. Grobman said. "Sometimes, though, those are the most educational moments."

Doctoral and Research Universities

Sherri D. Sheppard

Sherri D. Sheppard worries a lot.

But, she adds, "worries can be turned into possibilities."

Ms. Sheppard worries her engineering students are learning how to build machines but aren’t learning to talk to one another. So she takes extra care in teaching not only elements of machine design or an introduction to solid mechanics, but also effective listening.

One of Ms. Sheppard’s favorite stories in her nearly three decades of teaching isn’t about a student’s prolific mechanical design. It’s about a student who learned to listen.

This student, Ms. Sheppard said, didn’t care to learn about communication, about listening. He wanted to build machines, to learn the nuts and bolts of engineering. Anything else was a waste of time.

Later, as an engineer for Lockheed Martin, he came back to visit Ms. Sheppard.

"He told me, ‘Now I get it. The listening is one of the most important things. You can have one of the most impressive pieces of technology, but if you can’t present this information, no one’s going to buy your idea.’" Ms. Sheppard said.