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April 8, 2008
By John Trent
Steve Wesnousky figured something was up Tuesday afternoon in his Air Photo Interpretation class.
First Jannet Vreeland, the University’s provost, walked into the room, followed by Jack Hayes, the associate dean of the College of Science, along with Gina Tempel, chairperson of the Department of Geological Sciences.
Vreeland had a check for $5,000 in her hand.
She also had the news that Wesnousky had been named winner of this year’s F. Donald Tibbitts Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award.
Wesnousky, a professor of geology and seismology at the University for nearly 19 years, had only one question once Vreeland informed him that he had been chosen as the institution’s top teacher.
“So it’s OK for me to tell my mom?” he said, drawing a round of applause and laughter from his students. “My mom is going to be so proud.”
Mom wasn’t the only one made proud by Tuesday’s news.
Since coming to Nevada in 1989 from Memphis State University, Wesnousky has earned a reputation as a professor who can create a classroom mix of science and the interests of his students. He is known as a professor who can have a profound influence on even the best science students, and perhaps just as importantly, as a professor who can ignite interest and potential in students who aren’t enamored with science.
One of his former students wrote of this ability to bring science to life: “Science is not my strong point – it never has been! I just wanted to thank you very much for making this semester worthwhile to a science challenged person like myself. You related your class to real world topics and issues and it made it so much more interesting to me. I will never look at the Earth the same again! Thank you for being so passionate about what you do, it makes it so much more enjoyable for students.”
Such praise usually only elicits self-deprecating humor from Wesnousky, who in 2007 was awarded the College of Science’s LeMay Excellence in Teaching Award.
As he noted that his career at Nevada has stretched nearly 19 years, he said, with a wry smile that Mark Twain would’ve appreciated, “There would be some differences of opinion on whether I was really teaching all those years.”
Nestled within the humor, though, is a rock-solid teaching philosophy that his students love.
Although one of his research specialties is neotectonic studies – work that has taken Wesnousky, the researcher, well into the Nevada backcountry to study phenomenon such as low-angle faults, for example, or to important national posts, such as when he was president of the Seismological Society of America – Wesnousky likens his classroom to a place of ideas, where the lectures on faults, geologic formations and tectonics can go hand in hand with photography, the arts, the words of philosophy, personal testimony and stories.
On Tuesday, a visitor asked his class how effective of a storyteller Wesnousky is, as it seemed obvious that stories come to the lanky professor easily.
Without hesitating, the group spoke up together, in unison, with a great deal of pride: “No, it’s not his stories. It’s our stories that we tell.”
“I do enjoy hearing our stories,” Wesnousky said of his interactions with his students. “I suppose from that perspective, this is a history class almost.”
Great teachers all have different auras and styles, with a strong command of each moment they stand before a class.
For Wesnousky, although the style might seem informal, there is no doubting he long ago learned how to sense and capture such key moments.
“I’m not introspective about these kinds of things,” he said. “I just try to have some fun without making too big a fool of myself. Hopefully my students learn something along the way. I do have to admit that I do like it when they’ve learned something.
“Most of the time, the learning is not really the geology, is it?