Regents approve five as 2021 Arthur F. Thurnau Professors


Five University of Michigan faculty members have been named Arthur F. Thurnau Professors in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to undergraduate education. 

The 2021 recipients, approved Feb. 18 by the Board of Regents, are Branko Kerkez, Sarah C. Koch, Richard L. Lewis, Stephen M. Ward and M. Remi Yergeau. 

Thurnau professors retain the title throughout their careers and receive $20,000 to support activities that further enhance their teaching. Distribution of the funding for 2020 and 2021 recipients is being delayed due to financial constraints related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provost Susan M. Collins presented recommendations for the professorships that included descriptions of each honoree’s work and achievements.

Kerkez, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, is known for founding an entirely new field in civil engineering and creating engagement opportunities for undergraduate students in a modern curriculum. His new section of ENGR 100 Smart Water Systems gives first-year students the chance to work with city and county officials in deploying technology to solve water management challenges.

In addition, Kerkez’s Hacker Space teaching laboratory gives students access to the software and electronics needed to build sensor systems that can reduce flooding and improve water quality.

“His commitment to open-source sharing of technology has led to collaborative projects with numerous partners outside the university, and the resulting testbeds provide plenty of real-world examples and data for new courses like ‘How Cities Work’ and revised courses like ‘Probability and Statistics,’” the description of Kerkez’s work said.

Over the past six years, Koch, associate professor of mathematics in LSA, has vastly expanded efforts to engage U-M students and faculty in mathematics outreach programs for K-12 students in surrounding areas. The efforts have helped to redress educational inequities and promote diversity at U-M.

“Faculty and students use terms like ‘powerhouse,’ ‘energy,’ and ‘irrepressible force of nature’ when describing Professor Koch’s award-winning contributions to mathematical education and community building at U-M and beyond,” the description of her work said.

One example of Koch’s innovation was her creative pairing of a student competition to design a Michigan Math mug with a Math Club talk about the math underlying voting schemes and Arrow’s Theorem.

Lewis, the John R. Anderson Collegiate Professor of Psychology, Linguistics and Cognitive Sciences, and professor of psychology and of linguistics in LSA, has collaborated since 2005 with faculty colleagues on creating programs that draw students into interdisciplinary quests to understand the human mind.

A central figure in creating the cognitive science undergraduate major, Lewis has directed the Weinberg Institute since 2017.

“Drawing on courses in computer science, linguistics, psychology and philosophy, the new program has become one of the top 15 majors in LSA in just six years,” the description of his work said. “Remarkably, its growth has not drawn students away from existing majors. Instead, it is welcoming and empowering new students to explore these fields, especially women.”

Ward, associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies and in the Residential College in LSA, is an award-winning teacher and program-builder who has created unique learning environments for students to help them understand contemporary urban America. He is known for bringing passion and enthusiasm to the creation of the urban studies minor, and has served as its coordinator and advisor for 10 years.

“As the faculty director of the Semester in Detroit program and co-founder of the Detroiters Speak: Building Community Classroom project, Professor Ward has built academically rigorous, engaged learning programs that mutually benefit both students and community partners,” the description of his work said.

The description also said Ward’s students appreciate how he leads them “to actively engage with history, to root it in real people and places, and to unearth its relevance to today.”

 Yergeau, associate professor of English language and literature and in the Digital Studies Institute in LSA, works at the intersection of three disciplines — writing studies, digital studies and disability studies — teaching eight unique courses that transform undergraduates’ understanding of neurotypicality and accessibility.

“Multiple awards attest to Professor Yergeau’s reputation as a dedicated and innovative teacher and mentor, as well as a visionary advocate for inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility,” the work description said.

Yergeau’s courses are designed to be accessible and inclusive while challenging students to explore the various dimensions of disability. As an example, students who participate in a “blog carnival” write short analyses of blog entries by a range of authors on a specific theme, examining ways that scholars and activists in the disability community frame the topic.

To become a Thurnau professor, faculty members must demonstrate a strong commitment to teaching and learning, excellence and innovation in teaching, and dedication to working effectively with a diverse student body.

They must have also made an impact on students’ intellectual or artistic development and on their lives, and contributed to undergraduate education in ways that extend beyond the classroom, studio or lab. 

The professorships were established in 1988. They are named after Arthur F. Thurnau, a U-M student from 1902 to 1904.

The Thurnau Charitable Trust, which was established through Thurnau’s will, provides support for the award.


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