Prestigious Piper Professor Title Bestowed Upon Chemistry Department's Simon Bott

Prestigious Piper Professor Title Bestowed Upon Chemistry Department's Simon Bott
Outstanding Performance in Chemistry Education Earns High Marks for School’s Biggest Cheerleader

Simon BottNo stranger to teaching excellence, chemistry professor Simon G. Bott has been selected as a Piper Professor of 2012 by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation. He will receive a $5,000 honorarium for his superior college-level teaching at the University of Houston (UH) and was recognized by President Renu Khator at a ceremony May 3.

“Simon Bott embodies true excellence in teaching. He cares deeply about his students from their understanding of chemistry to their success at college life in general,” said Mark A. Smith, dean of UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “His devotion to science education at all levels is exemplary, and this award is so very well deserved.”

Each year, the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation chooses 10 outstanding educators from across the state of Texas for this honor. A Texas-based nonprofit organization founded in 1950 for the purpose of supporting charitable, scientific and educational undertakings, the foundation began recognizing Piper Professors in 1958.

As an instructional professor and director of undergraduate affairs and advising in the Department of Chemistry, Bott’s actions both in and out of the classroom are legendary. Bott teaches seven introductory chemistry classes per year with a combined enrollment of nearly 3,000 undergraduates and still finds time to volunteer and drum up school spirit outside the classroom. A professor of chemistry at UH since 1997, Bott’s classes have become known for his animated and entertaining approach and are often standing room only with even students who aren’t majoring in chemistry fighting for a space in his lecture hall.

“I love teaching chemistry. It is possibly the most reviled subject in education, competing only with math and physics, yet it is the subject that lends itself to the most fun in-class activities,” Bott said. “There is little in my experience to compare with the ‘aha moment’ when a future neurosurgeon, theater major or Kindergarten teacher finally ‘clicks’ about chemistry. How one provides that ‘click’ is what has driven most of my professional career.”

One way he engages with his students is to give hand-written pop quizzes during every class period to gauge attendance and student comprehension. He personally sorts and grades these quizzes by hand so that he gets to know the students’ names. By doing so, he can call upon them in class to see where they are confused on concepts or calculations. Teaching five classes per week with his class sizes exceeding 550 students per lecture, he good-naturedly says his fellow carpoolers on the commute to and from campus are accustomed to seeing him grapple with large stacks of paper.

Beyond the classroom, Bott firmly believes that students need to become involved and engaged with the university and community as part of their education and, thus, encourages out-of-class activities. He says that students who are connected to and involved in campus life are more likely to succeed. Accordingly, he gives incentives to students for attending events on campus, joining organizations, voting in student elections and volunteering both at the university and in the outside community. Leading by example, he attends as many of these events as possible and has established several campus-wide programs designed to engage and involve students.

Two programs Bott created and continues to spearhead are a group called “PALS” and the “Cougar Trading Card” program. With PALS, every new student on campus is assigned an email contact from a pool of faculty and staff, as well as senior students. Of these 452 volunteers, or PALS, that Bott recruited, each one sends the students nine emails during their first year at strategic times, such as registration and finals. The emails contain important, timely information and encourage the students to ask questions or let their PALS know of any problems. With the Cougar Trading Card program, trading cards of noteworthy UH individuals are given out to students at various happenings on campus, such as concerts, workshops, organized student gatherings and athletic events. As students collect the cards, they get increasingly valuable prizes for the more activities they attend.

As one former undergraduate student wrote in a letter of support for Bott, “You enter the lecture theater and immediately you are struck by the fact that everyone is wearing red, our school color. You know that something special is about to happen. There is excitement in the air, anticipation. The energy level is high. Is this lecture to be given by a famous man? He’s certainly famous at UH. Dr. Bott encourages us to show our support for the university and to show we are proud to be part of this community. He makes enormous contributions to university life and is an outstanding lecturer who inspires his students to fulfill their potential.”

Another student of Bott’s who transferred from Stanford to graduate from UH in 2010 and is now pursuing a graduate degree at Yale wrote, “From the first five minutes of his class, I knew that the course would be different and more exciting than any science course I had ever taken. Dr. Bott’s wild enthusiasm for teaching, his unconcealed passion for UH and his absolute love of chemistry were never hidden for a second. He so profoundly impacted my way of thinking about science, about life. He is tangible proof that a student can receive a world-class education at UH.”

After more than 20 years of teaching chemistry, Bott says he still loves it and what keeps him excited every day is the four-way interaction between himself, chemistry, UH and his students. And the more involved he becomes, he says, the more his enthusiasm grows.

- Lisa Merkl, University Communication