Walking into a math classroom, the typical student may have a feeling of uneasiness, and possibly even dread when contemplating the formulas and theories that await them. But at Buena Vista University, if a student is lucky enough to have a class with Professor Ben Donath, these feelings of uncertainty soon dissipate.
BVU Associate Professor of Mathematics and this year's winner of the prestigious Wythe Award, Ben Donath, lives by the philosophy that, "We are products of what we've experienced." Being fully prepared for each class and excited for each new topic, he provides an example for his students to follow.
"When he enters a classroom, he is in his element. He deftly presents the mental process of math-ematics in a clearly logical manner that is fired by his enthusiasm for the topic," said one of his colleagues.
Professor Donath has come a long way from being the first in his family to attain higher learning, which he did at Illinois College, and later Miami University at Ohio and University of Iowa. But after 27 years of teaching undergraduate students, he shows no sign of slowing down.
"I didn't know anything about teaching when I arrived at (Illinois College), but about halfway through my years there I decided teaching was something I would like," said Donath. "I get to interact with young people. It helps keep me active, young, and mentally-charged," he continued.
The young people that have affected him have experienced an equally gratifying effect of his lessons on their own minds. One of his former students, who is now a high school teacher notes, "I can honestly say that his math history course ended up being one of my most challenging mathmatics courses in my undergraduate program. He told us he spent the summer coming up with these problems and preparing for our class, and it was very obvious."
One student used an analogy to compare Professor Donath with other professors: some teachers tell their students, "Come with me and I will show you the way," while the teacher jumps on their Ferrari and leaves students trailing on their bikes. But Professor Donath would join the students on his own bike and ride with them the entire journey.
Although Professor Donath is clearly worthy of such an achievement, he said it came as a surprise to him. "It made me think of some of the professors I have had and the qualities they held which made them exceptional," he said.
"It is always nice to gain recognition from a large group of people. This award is chosen by fellow professors, current and former students, and professional colleagues. I have been on the committee before and know what a difficult decision the Wythe Award can be. When they get it narrowed down to four finalists, they are all excellent teachers," said Donath.
In his acceptance speech on May 22, during the Buena Vista Faculty and Staff Recognition Dinner, Professor Donath recognized his own former teachers for being examples and role models in his own life. "I believe that we, as professors and teachers, are in large part the product of our own past teachers. I have been blessed with a number of great teachers throughout my life," said Donath.
Buena Vista is unique in its awarding of the George Wythe Award for Teaching Excellence, which is named in honor of legendary teacher, George Wythe, and endowed by Paul McCorkle, and his late wife, Vivian.
"Vivian was a very committed elementary school teacher, and Paul had such great respect for this institution," said Donath about the founders of this award.
Buena Vista is lucky to have such an award, as well as faculty that is outstanding enough to support it. "At the time I came here, I had four different job offerings, all at small schools. Buena Vista is the place that offered me the least money, but it is the place that I liked the most," said Donath about his decision to move to Storm Lake and join the Buena Vista community.
"Nobody gets into teaching to become rich, it is more for the psychic income and knowing that you have had an effect on your students," he said.
Now that he has been awarded $30,000 and a semester-long sabbatical in which to spend his prize, Professor Donath has expressed that he would like to further enrich his psychic income by possibly traveling to Europe to visit important sites and hometowns of famous mathematicians. Yet, the dedicated teacher says it is difficult to think about time spent away from his profession, no matter how much of an honor it is.
"Taking time off just isn't what I do," he said.