DILLON — If teaching awards are any indication, the unique block scheduling employed by the University of Montana Western seems to be working just fine.
For the fourth year in a row, the school has produced a Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year.
This year’s state winner is biology professor Mike Morrow, 39, who has taught at Western for 11 years.
Morrow helped establish and build the biology program at UMW: In 2002, there were only five students in the pre-professional health program, and a biology degree was not even offered by the school. Today there are 125 students seeking bachelor of science degrees in biology.
UMW’s past Carnegie winners include professors Julie Bullard, Delena Norris-Tull and Rob Thomas. The award is a partnership between the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
It honors both national and state winners with four professors earning national recognition based on the size of their institution, while a single professor earns the award from each state. Morrow, along with Bullard in 2011 and Norris-Tull, in 2010, were awarded Montana honors, while Thomas was awarded the national distinction in 2009.
Morrow credits the block scheduling used at Western as one reason the school has received such recognition.
“It demonstrates the quality of the people that work here at UMW,” said Morrow. “We’ve always had strong professors and the block scheduling has allowed a lot of us to capitalize on that system, to provide students with experiential learning opportunities that aren’t typically accessible under a traditional learning format.”
In the block scheduling system students typically take four courses between August and December, but they take them one at a time in 18 three-hour class sessions over four weeks.
Morrow, who earned his doctorate in cell, molecular and developmental biology from the University of Pittsburgh, teaches introductory, mid-level and advanced cellular and microbiology courses at Western, and he thinks the block scheduling is particularly suited for the sciences.
“What this really allows us to do is a lot more hands-on activity than a traditional course where you take a one-hour lecture course three times a week and a three-hour lab once a week,” Morrow said. “We have the students for at least three hours every day. We can do lab activities or field activities on a daily basis, which really allow us to do a lot more complicated things.”
FAMILY OF EDUCATORS
Morrow, originally from Western Pennsylvania, hails from a family of educators. His father taught microbiology at Clarion University and his mother was an elementary teacher. He credits them with instilling within him the love of teaching.
“Growing up with teachers as parents allows you to see the value of education,” said Morrow. “The influence educators have on students, the relationship they develop with students who keep in touch and are successful down the road. The rewards of teaching are not rapid and tangible. … Those results come much later. But being able up to witness that and seeing students who came back and thanked them was certainly an attractive aspect to the profession.”
Morrow says the key to good teaching is inspiring students with enthusiasm for the subject, as well as showing how the material is relevant to their lives.
“The important tenets to teaching are, first of all, to get the students excited about what they are learning, really conveying to them your own excitement, which can be contagious to them,” Morrow said. “And part of that is having them understand the material is relevant to the lives. Sometimes the things we deal with are abstract, especially when we can’t see them … all these molecules and cells. Being able to have the students relate that back to something that is relevant to them, maybe a disease that a relative has or maybe a controversy issue in science and society today is important.”
Mike Price, 30, is a second-year biology student at Western. He has taken two courses with Morrow and speaks highly of his former teacher.
“I like that he isn’t a straight-from-the book teacher,” Price said. “He knows his stuff so well that he can get in front of the class and present it without having slides and unnecessary stuff. And it’s a real personable experience. He is really enthusiastic and engaging, and he tries to get the students pulled into the material.”
The award process began with a nomination by UMW Provost Karl Ulrich, and it included letters of support from students and colleagues, as well as an application that required Morrow to submit a teaching statement and other materials.
One of Morrow’s former students, Amanda Kortum, who is attending graduate school at North Carolina State University, credits Morrow with helping her succeed. She won a prestigious fellowship from the American Society of Microbiology while at Western.
“During my four years at UMW, Dr. Morrow was a key player, as a professor and adviser,” Kortum wrote in her recommendation letter for Morrow. “In the classroom, it is clear that he dedicates his life to providing students with a quality education. Through his intense passion for biology and love of research, he has educated many future biologists, research scientists, veterinarians, and doctors.”
Despite his credentials and his love of research, Morrow isn’t interested in moving to a large research university in a bigger city.
“I don’t want that,” he said. “I view myself more as a teacher than a researcher … I love Western and I love Montana. I love the size of the school, the ability to do what we do, mixing research and a heavy teaching load, infusing research into our teaching. I love the balance.”
Morrow, who is unmarried, but has a steady girlfriend in Megan Conroy, also appreciates the abundant outdoor opportunities in Montana.
“Living in Southwest Montana I do all the outdoor stuff,” he said. “I hunt, fish, backpack. That was certainly the draw to come here in the first place.”
— Reporter Francis Davis may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org