WCU professor combines best of Socrates, Rivera to nab state teaching award

CULLOWHEE — Western Carolina University chemistry professor Gary L. Pool won recognition Friday (April 14) as one of the best teachers in The University of North Carolina system, drawing praise from faculty colleagues as a role model and mentor, and earning comparisons to Geraldo Rivera from students inspired by Pool’s “aggressive inquisitiveness.”

A faculty member at Western for 30 years, Pool was among 16 recipients in the sixth annual Awards for Excellence in Teaching, presented by the UNC Board of Governors at a special recognition luncheon in Chapel Hill. Winners each receive a commemorative bronze medallion and a $7,500 cash prize.

Pool was selected for the honor in recognition of an effervescent teaching style that injects a sense of humor and a healthy dose of exuberance into the often sterile world of the chemistry classroom and laboratory.

“He brings a certain excitement to the subject of chemistry, admittedly a subject not always viewed in that way,” said Western chemistry student Gerard Gregory, a senior from Winston-Salem, in introducing Pool at the awards ceremony. “With Dr. Pool’s humor and quick wit, an observer passing his classroom would perhaps be surprised at the laughter emanating from the room. It is also the reason why many of his students actually enjoy chemistry. With the excitement and exuberance he expresses in his teaching of chemistry, it is no wonder that he enjoys an excellent reputation as a teacher.”

Pool, who says he will not accept “I don’t know” as an answer, describes his teaching style as “linked Socratic,” which means that each of the many questions asked in class sets the stage for follow-up questions. “This process commonly leads the class discussion into unchartered territory. I like that,” said Pool, who believes that his goal as a professor is to educate his students for their futures, not just train them for their present.

“This process hopefully identifies and links the natural thought processes of the students throughout a class period and makes the concepts more understandable, more logical and more remembered,” Pool said. “To explore the natural thought processes of students demands that I form the initial questions so that they tap into the students’ everyday experiences. Intervening questions guide and mold the students’ thought processes in a real-time, linked manner.”

In his classrooms, Pool treats students with the utmost respect but also “gets in the student’s face,” said one colleague observing Pool’s technique to improve his own. It was that “in-your-face” style that led graduating seniors in 1991 to present Pool with “the Geraldo Rivera Award for Aggressive Inquisitiveness.”

Paul Brandt, head of Western’s department of chemistry and physics, said that Pool’s departmental colleagues consider him a role model and a mentor to younger faculty members. Pool is the first to take on an extra teaching load when it becomes necessary, Brandt said.

Pool, a WCU faculty member since 1970, earned his bachelor’s degree in professional chemistry from South Dakota State University and his doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Wyoming. In addition to the “Geraldo Rivera Award for Aggressive Inquisitiveness” given him by his students, he received WCU’s top teaching honor, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, in 1977 and the College of Arts and Sciences Teaching Award in 1994.

Recipients of UNC awards were nominated by special committees on their home campuses and selected by the Board of Governors Committee on Teaching Awards, chaired by William T. Brown of Fayetteville. The awards were presented by UNC President Molly Corbett Broad and Board of Governors Chairman Benjamin S. Ruffin of Winston-Salem.

Established by the Board of Governors in 1994 to underscore the importance of teaching and to reward good teaching across the university system, the awards are given annually to a tenured faculty member from each UNC campus. Winners must have taught at their present institutions at least seven years, and no one may receive the award more than once.