A love for learning that first flourished in a one-room Knott County schoolhouse has taken Dr. Jerry Cook to the top of the college teaching profession in the Commonwealth.

On Monday, the long-time Eastern Kentucky University Foundation professor of physics will receive the 2008 Acorn Award, the highest honor for teaching excellence bestowed by the Kentucky Advocates for Higher Education. The award, instituted in 1992, is presented annually to a college or university professor who exhibits excellence in service and commitment to students.

With the presentation of the 2008 award to Cook, EKU now boasts more Acorn Award recipients than any other college or university in Kentucky.

“The (one-room) school had 32 students in eight grades,” Cook recalled of his childhood, “and I was related to every one of those students. The young teachers had little formal training … yet they instilled a love of learning in me that has not faltered to this day. Since those early days I have always known that I belonged in the classroom.”

Through his undergraduate days at Berea College and his graduate work (master’s and doctorate) at the University of Kentucky, Cook “always observed teachers and noted what worked or didn’t work in their classrooms. The best teachers were the ones who made every student in the classroom feel like they were the most important person in the room. They were truly interested in their craft and were lifetime learners. These are the people who have inspired me to become a teacher.”

After teaching stints at the University of Kentucky and Cumberland College, Cook joined the EKU physics faculty in 1983. He divides his teaching career into two distinct sections marked by the year 1998.

“Until then,” Cook explained, “I used the traditional lecture methods commonly used in most college or university science courses. I was evidently very good at this approach if one uses student evaluations as a measure of effectiveness. Yet, I perceived something was missing in the way students were learning, or not learning, materials presented in my classes. Their work did not indicate a true understanding of what science really is, how it functions, and the questions science could or could not address.”

Much as he learned from his teachers in that one-room schoolhouse many years earlier, Cook listened closely to his students and learned about different teaching and learning styles from EKU colleagues in the College of Education.

“The simple idea that one learns science by doing science has guided my teaching career since 1998,” Cook continued.

Over the past decade, Cook has developed courses in inquiry physics for middle school and elementary teachers that utilize a hands-on, peer-learning environment that allows students to learn science by doing it. In this type of course, students enter the learning cycle at the discovery stage instead of the summative stage as is traditional in most lecture-based science courses.

The net result, Cook said, is that “a whole new generation of science teachers who have seen inquiry science modeled in a college classroom is now being produced at EKU. That approach has been so successful with future teachers than I am now working to change all the introductory courses in physics taught at EKU into a similar format.”

Dr. John Wade, interim dean of EKU’s College of Arts and Sciences, said the “merger of lab and lecture” makes the courses “much more engaging for students and has resulted in better retention, course assessment and growth in physics majors. Dr. Cook has been the key faculty member leading the way in this process, not only making the transformation himself but leading his colleagues in making the switch to the ‘studio concept’ as well.”

Indicative of his commitment to K-12 science education, Cook is the principal investigator for several substantial grants to improve science education in the public schools, especially in his native Appalachian region.

“His outreach and service to the community is an example of outstanding regional stewardship by a faculty member,” Wade said.

Just as 1998 marked one turning point in Cook’s teaching career, who knows what’s around the next proverbial corner?

“I am still learning my craft,” Cook said. “I would not want to be in a profession where I am not progressing and becoming better each day.”

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