Eisenhart Awards for Outstanding Teaching
Bernie Brooks Capturing students’ attention—and keeping it
A. Sue Weisler
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Bernie Brooks likes things that move fast—his white Alfa Romeo, his three Ducati motorcycles, and the bullet train in China.
“It’s an unreal experience,” he says, recalling his first ride on the high-speed rail while on a trip to Hong Kong. “You look out the window at the scenery and it looks like a movie. It feels like you’re standing there and the world is whipping by at 300 kilometers an hour.”
Brooks and his wife, Marlyne, and children Evie, Josie and Stirling will have plenty of chances to hop the bullet train when they move to central China for the summer. Nanjing University invited Brooks to teach linear algebra and statistics for the term, and Shanghai is only an hour away by the fast train.
Brooks’ reputation led to the offer from Nanjing University. He is an associate professor in the School of Mathematical Sciences in the College of Science and a gifted researcher and teacher. Brooks’ applied mathematical research tracking rumor flow over social networks and the population collapse on Easter Island has made the news during the last few years. This spring, his gift for connecting with students has earned him an Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching at RIT.
“I’m very happy to receive it because of the three parts of our job here—teaching, service and research—teaching is my most favorite part,” he says. “It’s nice to get recognized for something I enjoy doing.”
Brooks’ teaching debut came unexpectedly. “It was the classic, ‘The star is sick and the understudy steps in,’ ” he says. The then-graduate student was asked to take over a first-year calculus class of 400 students for his ailing professor at the University of Guelph.
“I was a little nervous because I had never done it before,” Brooks remembers. “There was one guy everybody said was the best teacher in the whole department. I sat in on his class and watched him. I did what he did. His only advice was: Keep moving. Don’t stand still. I do it out of habit now.”
A recent videotape of Brooks lecturing proved the point as he darted in and out of the frame. He says his perpetual motion helps his students concentrate.
“You can walk into the seats if someone is drifting. If you see this [holds hand to his pocket], someone is getting a text. So you can be right there and they ignore the text. Because once somebody opens one text, they’re gone for the lecture.”
He doesn’t blame his students for having “all the distractions of the Internet in their pockets.”
“I take classes, so I’m on the other side of the teacher-student relationship. I’m shy, so I sit all the way in the back. You can see a blue glow. The class is going on and everybody is checking their Facebook or whatever and it’s hard for everybody to pay attention and harder for the teacher to keep the students’ attention.”
Ever the student, Brooks earned an MBA and now teaches a class in financial mathematics. This year, he took two introductory art history classes, postponing the third in the yearlong sequence to enroll in Chinese in preparation for the summer.
Brooks’ method for engaging students reflects his respect for them.
“Step one is showing enthusiasm for your subject,” Brooks says. “It’s impossible for kids to care about the subject if it appears that you don’t.”
The second step is getting the students’ attention. The third step is keeping it. Brooks achieves this through humor. “Some people teach without any humor, and they still hold attention,” he says. “But, I think, it’s supposed to be fun to go to class.”