On Thursday, Professor of Mathematics Ed Burger was named the most recent recipient of Baylor University’s Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, which is the only national teaching award given by an institution for higher education to an individual for exceptional teaching.
Burger’s award represents the continuation of a tradition of success for the College in this domain. “While taking pride in Professor Burger’s personal achievement in winning the award … the College can also be proud of the fact that he is the third member of the faculty – and the second member of the Mathematics and Statistics Department – to receive the award,” Interim President Wagner. Colin Adams, professor of mathematics, won the Cherry Award in 2003 and Bob Bell, professor of English, received the award in 1998.
According to Burger, he was nominated for the 2010 Cherry Award by President Emeritus Schapiro and Wagner, who was then dean of the faculty. “You look around this campus and you have some of the best professors in the country,” Burger said. “I was very honored to be nominated.”
Colleagues and former students submitted letters of support to the Cherry Committee, and Burger became one of the finalists, along with Roger Rosenblatt of Stony Brook University and Elliot West of the University of Arkansas. “I was excited, I was delighted and I was genuinely honored,” Burger said of becoming a finalist.
According to Heidi Hornik, chair of the Cherry Award Committee at Baylor University, Burger stood out against the 120-plus applicant pool for this year’s Cherry Award. Hornik said that, despite an “exceptionally outstanding” applicant pool for this year’s Cherry Award, Burger’s letters of support were very strong.
“Former students and colleagues spoke of his effective methods, [his] ability to get students of all disciplines excited about math and his dedication to the art of teaching,” Hornik said. She also praised Burger’s ability to captivate an audience, as evidenced during his Cherry lecture at the university.
As a finalist, Burger took a three-day visit to Baylor University, where he gave two class lectures and a public lecture for members of the Cherry Committee. Burger described the experience, coupled with back-to-back interviews and introductions to the staff and faculty at Baylor, as “almost like an intense job interview.”
Finalists were also required to give a lecture on their home campuses, and Burger decided to lecture during Family Days in order to reach a wider audience. “I love the opportunity to talk, to look right at the audience and have a conversation with them,” Burger said. “Education shouldn’t just be a one-way street. It should be many people and many voices.”
Burger was notified of his selection as the award winner the day before Baylor officially announced the results. “It was kind of fun to have a secret you couldn’t tell,” Burger said, adding that he was surprised by his win.
To many on campus, however, it was no surprise that Burger was selected for the award. “I think we have a great department, and Burger is just an amazing individual,” said Thomas Garrity, professor of mathematics and department chair. “I think Ed is one of the best expositors of mathematics in the world. He sets a standard for the rest of us to try to aspire to.”
Professor of Mathematics Colin Adams, who was a Cherry Award recipient in 2003, noted Burger’s capability for inspiring and exciting students about their own abilities. “We have an ethos [at the College] that says: To be a great teacher you have to convey incredible commitment both to your students and to your field. [Burger] personifies that.”
Zach Padovani ’11 was one of Burger’s inspired students. Although not a math major, Padovani decided to take a course offered by Burger, titled “The Art of Mathematical Thinking: An Introduction to the Beauty and Power of Mathematical Ideas,” and did not regret his decision.
“I loved the class,” Padovani said. “[Professor Burger is] a phenomenal teacher, really good at taking the concepts and illustrating them. He’s very intellectual and engaging.”
Padovani added that Burger was not only engaging in the classroom and approachable after class, but also that he reached out to students by having them to dinner at his house and attending the neighborhood dinners that Padovani, president of Dodd Neighborhood, hosted.
Burger’s inspiration to students may come as part of his view of those students. “The students are the greatest resource we have here,” Burger said. “Everyone is inspiring each other – faculty inspiring faculty, faculty inspiring students, students inspiring students, students inspiring faculty – that’s what makes Williams special. We’re all at once students and teachers.”
Burger will teach in residence at Baylor University this fall. According to Hornik, Burger will be responsible for teaching two undergraduate courses within the mathematics department at Baylor University. In addition, Burger plans to initiate a Cherry faculty forum to focus on pedagogical discussion both across campus and across disciplines. Hornik added that Burger also plans to visit local elementary schools and demonstrate to a younger community his excitement and love of math.