Michael Gustin named a 2017 Piper Professor

Michael Gustin, a Rice professor of biochemistry and cell biology, has been selected as a Piper Professor for 2017 for superior teaching by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation. Established in 1958, the roster of Piper Professors includes outstanding college and university professors.

“This is a huge honor, especially being recognized by someone outside of Rice,” Gustin said. “I can’t help but compare

myself to others who have won the Piper at Rice — wow, those are really good teachers.” The honor has also been bestowed upon Rice’s Mikki Hebl, Dennis Huston, John Hutchinson, Frank Jones, Elizabeth Long, Stephen Klineberg, Allen Matusow, Ronald Sass, Richard Smith and John Zammito.

A Rice faculty member since 1988, Gustin hasn’t wavered in his willingness to experiment and test different techniques in the classroom.

“I’m constantly viewing teaching as a type of problem-solving — to not only think about how students learn, but how they engage with the material,” Gustin said. “There is an emotional element to learning. It’s not just what you know. There is a way that people connect to the material at an emotional level that inspires them to learn more and get excited about things.”

He also tries to employ ways to make the classroom feel smaller for students, which isn’t always an easy feat as Gustin teaches one of the largest classes on campus with nearly 200 students.

“I’m never satisfied with a class or curriculum no matter how long I’ve taught it,” Gustin said. “I always look for ways to fuss with it and change it.”

Gustin is particularly focused on promoting peer-to-peer education and was instrumental in creating Rice’s Student Taught Course program. He is also a strong believer in collaborating with other teachers. A discussion he had with another professor on a biology trip about focusing on the bottom 25 percent of the class still sticks with him.

“You’re usually focused on the students at the middle and the top of the class, but how do you help the people who aren’t doing well?” Gustin asked. “What are you doing for the bottom 25 percent of your class? I often raise this question to other professors.”

As chair of the faculty fellows for Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence, Gustin promotes communication between teachers and helped to establish Faculty Owl Days, an opportunity for faculty to observe their peers teaching in the classroom.

“We hold regular meetings and share teaching experiments we’ve tried,” Gustin said. “Often the most productive discussions involve an experiment that failed. You learned something from that attempt and modified it the next go-around.”

The Piper award adds to Gustin’s many teaching honors at Rice. In 2016, he was the 11th faculty member to receive Rice’s George R. Brown Certificate of Highest Merit, which honors outstanding performance in the classroom.

“It’s about people being inspired and inspiring others,” Gustin said. “Every class is a community and that community has energy and it’s a community that can sustain itself.”

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.