The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 21, 2001
May 21, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 35


Student Council Awards for Excellence in Teaching

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The process of selecting who gets the Student Council Awards for Excellence in Teaching is a rigorous one, beginning with an e-mail to all undergraduates calling for nominations, said Anuj Mittal, student body president and a member of the selection committee.

With several hundred nominations in hand this year, the committee weeded the list to about 50, and then the eight committee members surveyed students who knew each professor. Mittal said they wanted to make sure a nomination was not just based on someone's getting a good grade in a particular class.

After gathering more information, the committee met and, in a two-hour-long meeting, debated the merits of the top candidates, before selecting one each from the Krieger and Whiting schools.

Milton Cummings, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

For Cummings, a professor of political science whose specialty is American government, the Student Council Excellence in Teaching Award recognizes his strong teaching skills but also his concern for students outside the classroom. Many nominators noted the long hours that Cummings puts in, patiently advising students on courses, law school applications and scholarships.

"From everyone I know who takes his courses, most of them make him their adviser," said Matt Trezza, a junior international relations major. "And all of them talk about what an amazing person he is and how great the class is."

Tezza took Cummings' research seminar last fall and said he and the rest of the class fell in love with Cummings and his course. Afterward, Trezza approached Cummings about becoming his adviser.

"He's great," Trezza said. "He's the sort of person you want to have as a professor. Like when you think of the classical professor, straight from a movie, Dr. Cummings would be a perfect example."

Trezza said that Cummings' warmth, humor and character in the classroom endear him to students and get them fully engaged in the material.

Cummings, who has been at Hopkins for 36 years, acknowledged that he spends a lot of time advising students but says he doesn't resent the workload.

"I'm very tickled to hear that they appreciate the advising because I think of that as an important part of teaching," he said.

A graduate of Oxford University, Cummings takes particular pleasure in helping students apply for such scholarships as the Rhodes, which is for study at Oxford, and the Marshall, for study at a British university. Two years ago, one of his students, Craig Winters, won a Marshall, and this year, another of his students, Westley Moore, won a Rhodes.

Moore, who met Cummings two years ago, when he took one of his classes, said the professor helped him every step of the way in applying for the Rhodes, but he did even more than that.

I think the thing he really does, and his real gift is, he gives you confidence," Moore said. "He just has such a nurturing way of talking to you and helping you to realize that this is something you can apply for, and this is something you can win."

--Glenn Small

Louis Whitcomb, Whiting School of Engineering

If enthusiasm is contagious, then Louis Whitcomb is guilty of spreading the bug throughout the classrooms and labs where he ushers young people into the world of modern robotics.

Whitcomb's students recently paid tribute to his skills as an educator by naming him this year's recipient of the Student Council Excellence in Teaching Award within the Whiting School of Engineering.

One of the students who nominated Whitcomb wrote, "Not only is he the most enthusiastic professor I've ever met, but he is also one of the smartest men I know."

Another student added: "I've never had a professor who cared so much about students and the class he teaches."

Whitcomb, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, appreciated the honor but felt awkward about being singled out. "It was a very pleasant surprise, but I think there are a lot of people at Hopkins who are more deserving," he said. "Within Mechanical Engineering alone, we have a lot of awesome teachers on our faculty and staff."

Regarding his enthusiastic teaching style, Whitcomb said simply, "If you're not excited about the subject you're researching and teaching, you should get another job. If you're interested in the material and you show it, then the students will be interested, too."

To get students fired up about engineering, Whitcomb draws on a solid academic background at Yale University and plenty of field experience. Before coming to Johns Hopkins, he worked as a robotics researcher in private industry, and he maintains an active collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. With Woods Hole, he has devised undersea robotic control systems and tested them during a number of high-profile international research expeditions.

At Hopkins he obtained grants from Tektronix Inc. and the Whiting School's Dean's Office to set up the lab he uses to teach Robot Sensors and Actuators, the undergraduate course he developed. "I enjoy teaching this class," Whitcomb said, "because we can explore engineering theory and then practice it in the laboratory."

--Phil Sneiderman