Ellis is known for his intense commitment to understanding how people learn and for pushing himself and his colleagues to apply those lessons. Now that he's been named one of the US Professors of the Year, he can shout his message from the mountaintop. Ellis received the $5,000 award in November from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
"It is just not good enough to teach the way that we were taught," he said during the award ceremony in Washington. "We know that doing so in engineering will surely exclude many of the young people we need to attract." Much research in recent years points to the idea that the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math, known collectively as STEM, is crying out for improvement. "It needs to become ... much more hands-on, much more learner-centered," says Mary Moriarty, a researcher hired by Smith to conduct a two-year assessment of the Picker program. Yet the field has been slow to change, she says. The NSB report says that 83 percent of professors still use lecture and discussion as their primary methods in undergraduate classes.
Smith's program boasts a 90 percent retention rate and high participation of underrepresented minorities. Ms. Moriarty hopes to find out which elements of the experience at Smith most contribute to students' success. Female role models play a part (6 out of 10 engineering faculty here are women), but she says other factors are likely to be more important: "I think the methods being used here could probably translate very easily to other institutions that aren't all women," she says.