Cantrell, Woods Receive Distinguished Teaching Awards

By Marcia Goodrich | Published

Will Cantrell
Will Cantrell

"Office hours" are an elastic concept for Michigan Technological University's 2012 Distinguished Teaching Award winners.

"His office is always open," says physics department chair Ravi Pandey of Will Cantrell, associate professor of physics, who received the award in the professor/associate professor category. "I've seen him here on Saturday and Sunday working with students."

Roger Woods, a lecturer in the School of Business and Economics, received the award in the assistant professor/professor of practice/lecturer category. He also synchronizes his schedule to his students.'

"I'm on IM from 8 to 10 p.m.," he said. "That's when they are doing homework. When they get stuck, I help them get unstuck."

Woods came to Michigan Tech in spring 2003. The former IBM manager and engineer teaches Quantitative Problem Solving and is an instructor in the Business Development Experience, the School's equivalent of Senior Design. He also has taught a variety of other courses, including project management, operations management and entrepreneurship.

Students polled in his Quantitative Problem Solving class wrote, "He never lets a student fall behind if the student is putting their 100 percent effort into the course"; "He makes a difficult class enjoyable and gives us plenty of opportunities to get help"; and "He is the BEST teacher that I have ever had, period. Of all the schools I have ever been to, he is the most helpful teacher and the most excited about his job. He creates energy so that this class will never be boring and keeps us busy."

How does he inspire such enthusiasm? "I think it's access," Woods said. "I don't expect them to learn everything from a book or from a lecture. It's going to take some exploring; when they explore, they sometimes need help, and that doesn't happen on my schedule." He also makes a special effort to tailor the material for his students. "It's important to think of your audience."

One of the best things about teaching, he said, is watching a student experience the "aha!" moment that may serve them later in their careers. "I want them to walk away with confidence that they can learn, not just regurgitate information," he said. "Someday they will be in the workplace, without a professor, and I want them to apply these lessons so that ultimately they will do their job better."

"I challenge them, I make them think," Woods added. "If they are willing to respond by thinking, then they get it, and that's rewarding to them. And I enjoy interacting with those students who have that desire to learn."

Just reading a textbook won't cut it. "Word gets out: don't miss class," he said.

Occasionally, students let him know his efforts have paid off after they leave the University for the corporate world. "I get emails back saying, 'I did what you told me, and I was a star.'"

"It's no surprise" that Woods has been honored for his teaching, said Tom Merz, associate dean of the School. "Roger has a great rapport with younger people," he said. "It's a cliche, but it's still true: he deeply cares about younger people, and he gets a lot of gratification watching them work hard and succeed. Plus, he has a sense of his audience, who he is communicating with, so he can reach them."

His students agree. Wrote one, "When I tell people that I'm in BUS2300, people say 'Is Woods still teaching that? I loved that guy.'"

Cantrell came to Michigan Tech in 2001, after serving as a postdoc in chemistry at Indiana University and completing his PhD at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He teaches Electronics for Scientists and Senior Physics Colloquium II, and has also taught classes in atmospheric physics, thermodynamic and statistical mechanics, theoretical physics and the physics of clouds.

"When I first started teaching here, [physics professor] Alex Kostinski said, 'If you get something wrong, just admit it,' and I have found that can be one of the best ways to teach students," Cantrell said. "Alex told me, 'Make a mistake on the board every once in while to see if they are paying attention.'"

That not only rewards attentive students, it also brings home another lesson. "I tell students that getting your PhD does not endow you with infallibility," Cantrell said. "We work on problems in class that I find difficult. There's some tough stuff here."

Because of that, he keeps his office door open "most of the time." "When a student comes to me for help, I'd rather they'd go away understanding it."

It's a strategy that has developed over the years. "In the beginning, when I was teaching a 3-credit course, I would schedule three hours of office hours," Cantrell said. "Now, for 3-credit class, I schedule two hours and then tell them that if they need help, contact me, and we'll set something up."

Once he was in the office at 10 p.m. when he got an email from a stumped student. "I emailed him back and told him to come to the back door and I'd let him in," he said. "I also announce my office hours every class hour, since some of my students said they didn't know what my office hours were. I promised myself that would never happen again, so I start every class with the administrative details: office hours, when homework is due, quiz in two days. So we all start from the same place."

Said one of his students, "He is committed to the classroom and goes beyond expectations to help any student. He always provides positive feedback and constructive criticism." Said another, "He demonstrates the quality of a teacher who cares about his students and the subject and goes above and beyond that to help us. He is ALWAYS willing to help explain things outside of class. He actively engages us in class."

His success in working with students is due in part to the physics department's strong emphasis on quality teaching, Cantrell said, which makes his job easier. "Ravi sent me to a workshop, where I learned about just-in-time teaching," he said. "Now I send out warm-up questions due before every class period. That let's me gauge what the students got from the previous lesson, instead of what they think they got. And it shows me where they are, which helps me present the material."

He also reads a few of the students' answers to the class anonymously. "It's not because someone is brilliant or stupid," Cantrell explained. "It's because a student may have a common misconception or has presented something I want to bring up with the class. It also gives them a sense of ownership."

Pandey called Cantrell "a superlative model of the scholar-teacher."

"He has become a very great mentor," Pandey said. "A special strength is his patience in working with undergraduates. In our department, we find the best teachers to motivate our students, and through his teaching and advising, Will has been a key person in recruiting and retaining undergraduates in physics."

The students make his job easy, Cantrell said.

"From the time Socrates was wandering the streets of Athens, people have been saying kids these days are going to hell in a handbasket," he said. "Not true. I have the privilege of working with some of the brightest, most motivated young people I have ever seen."

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.