The Society of Columbia Graduates presented its 60th Great Teacher Awards to Lorenzo M. Polvani, professor of applied mathematics and of earth and environmental sciences, and Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy, Thursday night in Low Library.
The annual awards recognized Mercer and Polvani for bringing bright minds and compelling teaching to the classroom.
The Society, which is comprised of active alumni, takes into account the recommendations of students, faculty, and deans to choose two professors—one from Columbia College and one from the School of Engineering and Applied Science—to honor with Great Teacher Awards. Polvani and Mercer were hailed for their charismatic teaching and ability to pull students into classroom activity.
CC Dean Austin Quigley stressed that good teachers "teach young people to think for themselves," but that great teachers are able "to help them to learn to think independently" within the context of the classroom where they are debating issues with each other.
"They bring hope and optimism to our classrooms," Quigley said.
Interim SEAS Dean Gerald Navratil agreed, emphasizing that the teachers who really draw students in today are the ones that can properly engage students and "transmit passion and intellectual understanding of subject matter." As for the changing role of schools focused on engineering and applied mathematics, he declared that "engineering has become a liberal art for the 21st century."
Polvani discussed the formative influence of professor Mark Van Doren, who was awarded one of the first Great Teacher Awards in 1949, as one of his major influences.
"His classes were an education. ... They made your mind produce its own ideas," Polvani said. He also recognized his students, "who have themselves educated me. ... They have drawn out of me things I did not know I knew."
Mercer, who said she was thrilled to be at the epicenter of a major university after coming from a small town in Texas, also recognized her students as inspiration.
"Each has a story of eagerness and inspiration. ... With students like this, how can you not want to advise?" Mercer asked. "How can you not be a good teacher?"