Some people just have a gift for teaching. They connect with students, channeling the energy and excitement they have for their craft to others.
Such is the case with West Virginia University Professor of Geology John”Jack”Renton, one of only 46 teachers nationwide chosen as”Professor of the Year”by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). The awards were announced today (Nov. 13).
As West Virginias top prof, Dr. Renton shares”the wonders of geology on this spaceship earth”with close to a thousand undergraduate studentsmostly freshmeneach year. He also reaches K-12 science teachers around the state who tune in to the Monday night telecourse he co-teaches with colleagues Bob Behling and Deb Hemler or turn up for their field-based courses to destinations like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park and the Cascades.
After finding out early in his career that lecturing from notes wasnt effective with students, Renton says he began carrying on a”conversation”with them that is not strictly scientific. To this day, he approaches his classes as an actor would a one-act play. He prepares a good script, rehearses it for hours, then destroys the script to avoid using the same presentation again.
“Not only does he not take notes to class,”says colleague Joseph Donovan,”Jack doesnt wear a tie or speak behind a lectern, as these come between a teacher and his students.”
Renton says he considers teaching”serious business,”but doesnt believe in fancy gimmicks or props.
“I simply prepare a good script, rehearse it and then express the ideas and concepts to my studentsmuch as an actor would to his audience,”he says.
He refers to geology as”a visual science,”and says with no equations or formulas to expound, he uses original illustrations and graphics to explain the material. As he does so, he”converses”with the some 200-plus students enrolled each semester in his large lecture classes via a cordless mike.
The lectures simply supplement the course text, he notes, so if students dont come to class, they will likely find themselves at the low end of the grading scale.
“Jack has developed marvelous ways of presenting complex issues: Landslides thus become amazingly clear when students realize the `goforce exceeds the `stayforce; or that the complexity of plate tectonics folding and faulting is simplified by the strength of the material between stress applied and strain response,”says colleague Behling, with whom he team teaches.
Colleagues even joke that Renton is”the Cal Ripken of Geology 1,”estimating that he has taught some 23,000 geology I students in his 35 years at WVU .
“In large freshman courses for which evaluations are the bane of most faculty, Jack approaches perfection,”Donovan says, ranking 4.7on a scale of 5.0.
One will also find him interacting with students. When a student unexpectedly asked him if water flows clockwise when you flush a commode, he recalled wondering that himself as a graduate student and described how he and his friends returned to White Hall one evening to fill all the sinks and flush all the toilets to see for themselves. The answer?”Its not a co-relatable effectsometimes it does and sometimes is doesnt,”he surmises.
And as students and technology changed over the years, so did Renton. He currently has a website where he posts illustrations, virtual field trips, exam questions and study tips for students.
As he looks back over his long teaching career, Renton says he cant imagine another profession that could be more rewarding.
“I love the student who comes up to me in some distant airport and says that he or she had been in my class years ago and that it was one of the best classes they had ever takenand that they think of me every time they see a rock outcrop. What could be more satisfying?”
Renton has won numerous teaching awards, including the 2001 WVU Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching and the 2000 WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Teacher of the Year award. But the U.S. honor for the state of West Virginia, he claims, is the icing on the cake.
“This is the top of the pile in my field,”he quips.”It doesnt get any better.”
Renton has a new physical geology textbook,”Planet Earth,”coming out this fall that will be used by colleagues across the country. It features a color photo of Blackwater Falls on the cover”to promote the geology of the state,”ne notes.
He received both a master of science and a Ph.D from WVU , and following a brief stint in the service, began teaching geochemistry at WVU in 1965.
Including Renton, WVU has had 12 CASE recipients over the past 15 years. Past recipients: Sophia Peterson (1987), Carl Rotter (1988), Judith Stitzel (1989), Robert DiClerico (1990), Pat Rice (1991), Jack Hammersmith (1992), Richard Turton (1993), Gail Galloway Adams (1994), Bernard Allen (WVU-P, 1996), Christine Martin (1998), and James Harms (1999).