MADISON —“- It would not be a problem if you already knew how to solve it.”

It is the kind of statement that sends a signal to students:  This is no ordinary teacher.

Two individuals and one academic department will be honored this week for such extraordinary approaches to exemplary teaching with the 2006 Teaching Excellence Award from the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.  The recipients are:

  • John Koker, professor of mathematics, UW-Oshkosh;
  • Kathryn Olson, associate professor of communications, UW-Milwaukee; and
  • Department of History, UW-Eau Claire.

The Board distributes the annual teaching honors to recognize UW System faculty, staff and academic departments that demonstrate an exceptional commitment to instruction, said Regent Danae Davis of Milwaukee, who chairs the Board’s Teaching Excellence Awards selection committee.

“These outstanding educators set themselves apart because they recognize teaching as the best opportunity to challenge and inspire students,” Davis said. “The recipients of these awards are professionals who earn praise from their colleagues, and, more importantly, serve as role models who are enthusiastically appreciated by their students. The Regents are enormously proud of the winners, and of all the educators nominated for this award.”

Other Regents on the selection committee were Charles Pruitt of Shorewood, Jesus Salas of Milwaukee and Christopher Semenas of UW-Parkside.

It was UW-Oshkosh Math Professor John Koker who said, “It wouldn’t be a problem if you already knew how to solve it.” Students have said Koker puts his motto into practice by emphasizing the process of solving a problem more than skills or answers. Koker, who is serving as interim dean of the College of Letters and Science, said he wants his students to have the opportunity to be “stuck” and understand that it is a natural place to be during the problem-solving process.

­­ This approach, he asserts, actively engages students in problem-solving and helps them develop the ability to reason logically.

Former UW-Oshkosh College of Letters and Sciences Dean Michael Zimmerman said he was struck by Koker’s ability to relate to students at many academic levels, from first-year undergraduates to advanced graduate students.

“[Koker] connects with students in a way that is all too rare and helps the vast majority of them accomplish things they never believed possible,” Zimmerman said in nomination materials.

Koker won the UW-Oshkosh Distinguished Teaching Award in 2002, and has been previously twice nominated for the Regents’ Teaching Excellence Award.

UW-Milwaukee Communications Professor Kathryn Olson says she was not born a teacher; she was born a learner. As such, she seeks to empower other learners by helping them develop critical thinking and arguing skills.

To establish connections between classroom material and students’ concerns, Olson incorporates a wide range of real examples in her teaching, from popular culture to news and recurring human problems.

Christina Frey, who worked with Olson both as a student and as a research assistant, said the professor achieves success through her student-centered approach to teaching.

“What puts Professor Olson above other teachers is her ability to push students to new levels of critical thinking, while at the same time making learning fun and inviting,” she said.

Olson has previously won teaching awards from the Wisconsin Communication Association, the Central States Communication Association and has been a finalist for multiple teaching awards at UW-Milwaukee.

Future teachers and scholars studying history at UW-Eau Claire benefit from a “spirit of collaboration and cooperation” among the department’s faculty and staff, honored with this year’s award for departmental excellence.

In addition to recently launching a new undergraduate program in public history, the History Department has also created a center focused on the teaching and learning of history, and has attracted more than $3.5 million in grants to establish graduate programs for K-12 teachers.

A former student, 2002 graduate Shane Butterfield, praised the History Department’s faculty for instilling in him skills and confidence, tools he is now using in pursuing his doctoral degree.

“Though all of its faculty members are renowned scholars, the strength of the department is teaching students and developing their abilities,” Butterfield said.

Currently, about 300 UW-Eau Claire students are majoring in history or broad field social

science with a history emphasis. They are joined by 70 students pursuing history minors, and 28 master’s students.

The UW System Board of Regents will honor these outstanding teachers and academic department with the 14th annual Regents Teaching Excellence Awards during a ceremony at its Nov. 9-10 meeting in Madison. Winners receive a stipend of $5,000 to be used for professional development.

Media Contact

Doug Bradley UW System 608-265-0548