Six faculty members have been recognized for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education as this year’s Arthur F. Thurnau Professors.
The 2019 honorees, approved Thursday by the Board of Regents and effective July 1, are Henriette D.M. Elvang, Bogdan Epureanu, Sandra R. Gunning, Sandra R. Levitsky, Adam C. Simon and Michaela T. Zint.
Criteria for Thurnau professorships include a strong commitment to students and to teaching and learning, excellence in teaching, innovations in teaching and learning, a strong commitment to working effectively with a diverse student body, a demonstrable impact on students’ intellectual or artistic development and on their lives, and contributions to undergraduate education beyond the classroom, studio or lab.
The professorships are named after alumnus Arthur F. Thurnau and supported by the Thurnau Charitable Trust. Recipients receive $20,000 to support teaching activities, including travel, books, equipment and graduate student support.
Descriptions of the recipients’ work are taken from recommendations provided to the regents by Provost Martin Philbert. The appointments are titles the six will retain throughout their U-M careers.
Elvang, professor of physics, LSA, “combines particularly eloquent presentations with a relaxed, completely approachable personal style that draws students in and elicits open interaction,” according to faculty colleagues.
By using oral exams and written assignments, along with equations and problem sets in her classes, Elvang challenges students to explain what they are learning and helps them develop communication skills.
Elvang created an honors version of Physics 360, a course that reaches sophomores and has inspired more students to pursue a major in physics. The course has contributed to a doubling in the number of majors in the past seven years.
Elvang’s mentoring program also has prepared graduate student instructors to apply teaching strategies backed by physics and general education research, creating better learning environments in upper-level courses.
Epureanu, professor of mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science, College of Engineering, has made several contributions to undergraduate engineering education, as seen most clearly in his teaching of “Introduction to Dynamics and Vibrations.”
Since 2002, more than 1,200 sophomores have taken his sections of this required course, and some have said this experience prepared them for their first engineering jobs.
Students have reported moving from dread to enthusiasm, thanks to Epureanu’s emphasis on experiential and problem-based learning that helps them bridge the gap between mathematically complex concepts and lasting understandings of how to apply those concepts.
Epureanu has mentored 80 undergraduates in his research lab, serves as the faculty mentor for the local chapter of the National Mechanical Engineering Honor Society, and is the founder of the U-M Forecasting Club.
Gunning, professor of Afroamerican and African studies, American culture, English language and literature, women’s studies, and in the Honors Program, LSA, has offered more than 20 unique undergraduate courses. She has focused her efforts on creating valuable learning experiences in two foundational courses: “Introduction to Africa and Its Diaspora” and “American Values.”
In these courses, Gunning asks her students to tackle challenging materials about race and ethnicity across historical contexts. She assigns them 1,700-word illustrated research papers that ultimately make up a class encyclopedia that is used as required reading for the course. By creating a system in which each student has a chance to be the expert, Gunning develops a socially just learning environment for a diverse student population.
Colleagues who seek out Gunning for ideas about teaching say she “is sympathetic, thoughtful and always puts the undergraduates first.”
Levitsky, associate professor of sociology, LSA, has earned outstanding student evaluations no matter the course size or level. Students say she motivates them to think in new ways, to recognize the complexity and fluidity of the social world, and to challenge their personal presuppositions. As a professor and director of the sociology undergraduate program, she has inspired many students to major in the discipline.
Levitsky has expanded the sociology curriculum to better serve those contemplating careers at the intersection of law and society and health and society.
Recognizing that a quarter of sociology majors are first-generation college students, Levitsky launched the Sociology Opportunities for Undergraduate Leadership program, which addresses financial concerns with paid research opportunities that connect students with faculty mentors.
Simon, professor of earth and environmental studies, LSA; and professor of environment, LSA and School for Environment and Sustainability, teaches nine different earth and environmental science offerings ranging from large introductory courses to small, immersive field experiences.
Direct student engagement is a hallmark of Simon’s teaching and in “Mineral Resources, Economics, and the Environment,” students design projects, gather data, and formulate and evaluate solutions to environmental issues facing the U-M community.
Along with team-teaching a course for elementary education majors who will teach K-6 science, Simon also participates in a faculty community of practice that is working to make 100 case studies globally available for teaching environmental issues.
He actively recruits diverse participants into his research group and helps less privileged students plan ways around barriers like costly field experiences.
The director of the Program in the Environment noted Simon “pushes for intellectual rigor, improving mentoring of undergraduate students, and exploring innovations that can be deployed throughout the curriculum.”
Zint, professor of environment and sustainability, SEAS; professor of environment, LSA and SEAS; and professor of education, School of Education, was named an Outstanding Instructor by the undergraduate Program in the Environment in 2017.
Research on Zint’s teaching methods indicate the importance of students earning confidence in their ability to make a difference by translating their learning into action beyond the classroom.
In her “Social Sciences and Environmental Problems” course, students work alongside U-M staff to develop recommendations for addressing campus sustainability challenges. Many are motivated to continue their efforts to implement their projects even after the semester has ended.
“Before working with Dr. Zint, I never saw myself doing research or having such a significant impact on the university,” one student wrote.
Zint also successfully obtained institutional approval for a new combined bachelor’s and master’s degree, which will enable a more diverse group of students to pursue an advanced degree in environmental studies.