Parent Magazine

Metcalf Cup and Prize Winner: Stormy Attaway

Teaching that always evolves, like technology

By Rich Barlow

Boston University BU, Metcalf Cup and Prize winner College of Engineering assistant professor of mechanical engineering Stormy Attaway, Digital Learning Initiative,

Devotion to students and ever-improving teaching has earned Stormy Attaway the 2014 Metcalf Cup and Prize. Photo by Mike Spencer

Nature gave Stormy Attaway (GRS’84, ’88) an intellect capable of grasping complex concepts. She wrote a textbook about a sophisticated programming language called MATLAB used in research labs, and she has worked to develop online education through BU’s Digital Learning Initiative.

Yet the College of Engineering assistant professor of mechanical engineering admits that one simple mathematical conceit has always stumped her: the bell curve.

“I have never understood why anyone in the education profession would create a system in which students are destined to fail,” she wrote in a statement of her teaching philosophy, adding her wish that all of her students could master all class material and thereby earn As (and, it goes without saying, abolishing the bell curve). That concern for students isn’t just wishful thinking on her part: when the ENG curriculum couldn’t accommodate a course in a vital programming language, she offered students free Saturday tutorials, which have become half-credit, supervised research courses.

Attaway (real name Dorothy—her parents nicknamed their newborn Stormy for her frequent bawling) is this year’s winner of the Metcalf Cup and Prize, the University’s highest teaching honor. Her drive to help ENG students thrive is a big reason why: the theory of evolution is no theory to Attaway, whose deliberately evolving teaching style incorporates new approaches to better reach students.

By evolving, Attaway doesn’t mean merely accommodating new technologies, but also experimenting with alternatives to traditional classroom lectures. “One of my main concerns is evidence-based teaching,” she says, “trying things in a systematic way to find out what works and what doesn’t.”

For example, she has shifted in recent years to brief talks of no more than 10 minutes, followed by practice problems that students tackle in teams for a more active learning approach. Last fall, she abolished lectures outright in one of her classes. Instead, students in that section received lecture slides online before class and devoted in-class time to problem-solving. “It wasn’t entirely successful,” she says, as many students weren’t adequately prepared before class.

This semester, she modified the approach, putting lecture videos online, complete with embedded quiz questions. “Students needed to bring the answers to class, which meant they had to watch the lecture videos. This has been much more successful,” Attaway says. Dispensing with traditional lectures makes it easier to assess how she’s doing as a teacher, since “I can walk around the room and engage the students one-on-one.”

She was “dumbfounded,” she says, when President Robert A. Brown and Provost Jean Morrison invited her to the president’s office to inform her about receiving the Metcalf Cup and Prize. “It has been very motivational to me. I feel more urgently than ever the need to help students learn basic coding concepts.”

“I can think of no one who has touched more BU engineering students during the last 30 years,” one colleague wrote to the Metcalf selection committee. An unsolicited note to Attaway from a former student raved, “Your class was the first programming class of my life. After the first few lectures, I was hooked. It wasn’t just the material I liked, but the presentation was unsurpassed by any subsequent class I took in my college career.…There are countless numbers of other students just like me whose life you’ve transformed.”

Attaway, who has taught at BU since 1986, has been instrumental in ENG’s administrative life as well. She is director of curricular assessment and improvement, she works with colleagues to improve instruction, and she uses upper class undergraduates in her courses as learning assistants, training them to lead groups in this team-dependent discipline.

“The result,” reads her Metcalf citation, “has been generations of students, fellow faculty, and future teachers across disciplines forever fascinated by the teaching and study of engineering.”

A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.

Terry Everson, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of music, and Alan Marscher, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of astronomy, are the recipients of this year’s Metcalf Awards.

A version of this story previously appeared on BU Today.

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