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Real-World Biology

Eric Widmaier of CAS on teaching scientific fact using television fiction

Click the audio player below to hear Eric Widmaier talk about passion in teaching.

Eric Widmaier models his approach to mentoring on a biology professor he had as an undergraduate at Northwestern University.

“She took a great deal of time mentoring us one-on-one,” says Widmaier. “She spent a great deal of time making sure we understood what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how it fit into the bigger picture of science.”

It is an approach to teaching carried on by Widmaier, who came to BU in 1988 and has taught human and animal physiology and endocrinology. And his abilities as a mentor were part of what earned him a 2007 Metcalf Award.

The Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching is Boston University’s highest teaching honor, and the Metcalf Awards, recognizing skilled and engaging faculty members, are a comparable reward for excellence. Established in 1973 by a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a former faculty member and chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees, and presented at Commencement, the awards are a ceremonious public expression of gratitude to the teachers students regard as the defining figures of their academic careers. The Metcalf Cup comes with a prize of $10,000, and the Metcalf Awards with $5,000.

This year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize recipient was Jeffrey Beatty, a School of Management associate professor of strategy and policy. The Metcalf Award winners were Widmaier and Penelope Bitzas, a College of Fine Arts school of music associate professor of voice.  

A committee of five previous winners and two undergraduates selects the winners, weighing factors such as statements of pedagogy from the nominees and observing their teaching by sitting in on their classes. The letters of recommendation from current and former students also are key, drawing readers into the classroom to experience the professors’ energy and enthusiasm.

The students who wrote to recommend Widmaier for the award repeatedly cited the clarity and context of his lectures and his openness to student questions, both in and out of the classroom.

“At the end of each lecture, he would bring us to some new conclusion,” writes one student, “often relating things from past lectures into what he had just taught.” Adds another, “His ability to explain information is phenomenal.” Many mention Widmaier’s use of analogies in his teaching, citing, for example, an encounter between a man and a wild bear to demonstrate the hormonal “fight or flight” response.

“He teaches material he has known for years, yet has the enthusiasm as if he is only learning it for the first time,” Karishma Shah (CAS’07) writes. “It’s almost impossible not to love a class when the professor is as zealous about the topic as [Professor] Widmaier is.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.