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Cindy Fox Aisen
IUPUI School of Science

Last modified: Thursday, November 18, 2010

IUPUI mathematician named 2010 Indiana Professor of the Year

Nov. 18, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeffrey Xavier Watt, associate professor of mathematical sciences and associate dean for student affairs and outreach in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has been named the 2010 Indiana Professor of the Year.

Sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and administered by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the U.S. Professor of the Year award recognizes professors for their influence on teaching and their commitment to undergraduate students. It is one of the most prestigious awards honoring undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

Jeffrey Watt

Jeffrey Watt

Watt has been interested in undergraduate teaching since graduate school and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics education from Indiana University. He began his teaching career at IUPUI in 1988 and in the subsequent two decades has received more than $13 million in grant funding to support his research and related outreach. In large part as a result of his efforts, the School of Science has dramatically increased the number of students in mathematics classes and experienced a five-fold increase in the number of students graduating with bachelor's degrees in mathematics.

His approach serves IUPUI students well. Student reviews of his courses give him extremely high marks as both a teacher and a mentor. Accustomed to explaining abstract concepts in concrete terms, he sums up his educational philosophy by likening himself to a swim coach who can motivate and train swimmers but doesn't get in the water and swim for them.

"Teaching mathematics by rote memorization, followed by drilling students with routine operations and problem sets, reduces student interest in mathematics and science, hampers student intellectual growth," Watt said. "Using critical thinking skills through classroom communication and problem-solving to teach concepts is essential. The teacher must help students take an active role in their learning so that they can become active lifelong learners."

Watt believes that helping those who think of themselves as "bad at math" overcome this barrier to learning is a critical and accomplishable role of the undergraduate mathematics educator. "A student who has a strong conceptual image of an idea is able to put the idea into his or her own words, apply the idea to different contexts, and use the idea to solve new problems," he said. "This point is especially important for non-science majors -- whom the traditional teaching paradigm has inappropriately branded as mathematically untalented rather than as deficient in the tools needed to succeed in the field."

"What makes Jeff Watt successful lies in his unique ability to engage students in discussions of the key concepts and how they relate to other disciplines from science to philosophy to engineering," said Bart Ng, dean of the School of Science and Marvin L. Bittinger Professor of Mathematical Sciences at IUPUI. "He is appreciated by students and faculty, alike. We are inordinately pleased and honored to have Jeff Watt named as 2010 Indiana Professor of the Year. He does our state, our university and our school proud."

The U.S. Professors of the Year awards program selects the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country -- those who excel both in teaching and in positively influencing the lives and careers of students. Watt received his award, along with winners from 37 other states and four national honorees, at a Nov. 18 ceremony in Washington, D.C.