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Week of December 3, 2012

Math faculty member is Michigan Professor of the Year

He wears a Math Department T-shirt every teaching day. He tells a joke 20 minutes into every lecture. He’s as known for his tireless mentorship as he is for his tough homework. Now, math professor Stephen DeBacker has been named the 2012 Michigan Professor of the Year.

The state-level award was announced by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of  Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He is one of 30 professors across the nation who were honored.

Among his efforts to excite students about math, Stephen DeBacker (left) runs the Michigan Math Circle for area middle and high school students. Photo by Molly Logue.

DeBacker, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Mathematics in LSA, has been at U-M for nine years and is director of the department’s undergraduate program. In that time, the department has tripled the number of math majors graduating at U-M and boosted sixfold the number obtaining math minors.  

“Most everyone should take more math,” DeBacker said, and one ingredient in the department’s growth has been his tactic of asking every instructor teaching math at Michigan to encourage their top students to take one more math course.

Ruthi Hortsch was one of those students a few years ago. She did not intend to study math, but that was before she took DeBacker’s honors course her freshman year in 2007.

“Professor DeBacker is the one who advised me to take his class. His teaching was the turning point that made me want to become a mathematician, and his encouragement is what made me believe I could do it,” Hortsch wrote in one of DeBacker’s nomination letters. She is now a mathematics doctoral student at MIT.

DeBacker also has worked to build a community, enhancing the “life and culture surrounding Michigan’s undergraduate mathematics program as a whole,” wrote one of his nominators. After he started aggressively advertising lectures for the Thursday afternoon math club talks, attendance rose dramatically to the current 40-50 students at each lecture. And he makes sure there are always cookies and soft drinks to attract students to the weekly honors recitation sections. He has improved the curriculum and instituted outreach to high schools, as well, said Mel Hochster, the Jack E. McLaughlin Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics and department chair.

“I am very excited to hear that Stephen has won this award,” Hochster said. “While maintaining a rich research program and participating in every phase of the department’s operation, he has become the heart and soul of the undergraduate program. He has devoted himself to the welfare of undergraduate students in so many ways, with such wonderful effect, that it is truly difficult to overstate his contributions. He has been extraordinarily successful, and very much deserves this recognition.”

DeBacker said he laughed when he heard he had won.

“I was definitely surprised,” he said. “I’m lucky to work in a department that has a long tradition of excellence — both in research and undergraduate education. It is a great honor to receive this recognition, and I thank both my very supportive colleagues and CASE/Carnegie.”

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