University professor wins statewide teaching award

A storm-chasing professor whose teaching philosophy is “science is a contact sport” has received a statewide educational honor.

Samson. Photo courtesy Perry Samson

Perry Samson, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, has been chosen as a Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year by the President’s Council of State Universities. He will receive the award at a ceremony on May 13.

“Knowing the wealth of professorial talent in this university and state I am honored and humbled to be chosen,” Samson says. He also thanks the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching for its role in compiling and submitting his nomination.

Samson, who has taught at U-M since 1979, started out as an air quality and meteorology researcher. After a sabbatical spent with a Nobel laureate and a distinguished physicist who had turned their attention to rebuilding science education, Samson joined their movement to “invigorate undergraduate teaching,” as he describes.

He does this invigorating personally, and he is developing tools to help other instructors succeed.

Samson has taken students camping in 38-below-zero weather in Greenland to measure energy flow to and from ice sheets. In his annual summer tornado camp, students travel the Great Plains studying storms. He co-founded The Weather Underground, a Web site developed with undergraduates to help K-12 teachers and their students get real-time weather information. Now it’s one of the most-visited sites on the Web.

“My goal of making real data a central part of learning cannot be limited to field experiences,” Samson says. “The bigger challenge is bringing the excitement of discovery back to classroom situations — in particular introductory classes that serve as one of the few exposures many college students will get to science.”

To make large lecture classes more dynamic and interactive, Samson has developed LectureTools. This system, used in classes at U-M and at more than 400 other colleges and universities, allows students to take notes and make drawings directly on lecture slides, answer a wide range of question types posed by the instructor, anonymously ask the instructor’s aide a question through a chat window during class, and rate their own understanding of each slide, giving the professor valuable real-time feedback, among other features.

Samson is in the process of integrating into LectureTools his own brand of electronic textbook, developed through his company LivingText. His model, a textbook for the Facebook and iTunes generation, will be unveiled in several classes at U-M in the fall.

“Professor Samson has long been acknowledged as one of the University of Michigan’s finest teachers,” Provost Teresa Sullivan wrote in her recommendation letter. “Professor Samson writes that he views science as a ‘contact sport,’ a subject one learns by engagement, and it is clear from his many years of successful teaching at U-M that he has found creative ways to put this philosophy into practice.”

In 2009 Samson received the university’s inaugural Teaching Innovation Prize, which honors faculty members who have developed innovative and creative approaches to teaching.

He is one of three winners of this year’s Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year, chosen from among full professors at Michigan’s 15 public universities. The award recognizes a strong, clear commitment to undergraduate education.


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