Physics Professors Receive Butler Excellence in Teaching Award

Rebecca Forrest and Oomman Varghese Recognized for Their Dedication to NSM’s Teaching Mission

The University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics has awarded physics instructional professor Rebecca Forrest and physics associate professor Oomman Varghese the 2020 John C. Butler Excellence in Teaching Award.

Rebecca Forrest
Rebecca Forrest, instructional professor of physics, won the Butler Excellence in Teaching Award for instructional faculty.
Oomman Varghese
Oomman Varghese, associate professor of physics, won the Butler Excellence in Teaching Award for tenure/tenure track faculty.

Every year, the award is presented to faculty who have demonstrated outstanding accomplishments in teaching and a track record of dedication to the teaching mission of NSM. The award was created in the memory of former NSM dean John Butler.

Usually, two awards are made every year. One to a tenured or tenure-track faculty member and one to an instructional faculty member. Along with the recognition, faculty receive a $5,000 check and plaque.

“I am very excited because I know it was mostly decided from students’ letters,” said Forrest. “That means I made a difference in students’ lives, and that’s what it is all about.”

Faculty not only had to submit a CV, teaching statement and course evaluations for all courses taught during the two last years, but they also had to submit five letters from students and faculty.

“I feel very honored by the award,” said Varghese. “Although I don’t teach with an award in mind, this is a big recognition for me. It actually helped me realize what I am doing is effective for students.”

Because of Varghese and Forrest’s dedication and commitment to teaching with students in mind, students in turn praise their work.

A One-on-One Connection to Students

One student recommender writes Varghese does not teach to simply relay information to students but is “truly concerned with the students’ understanding of the material.”

He adds that he was struggling with a class at the beginning of a semester and considered dropping it. But Varghese personally encouraged him to remain.

“Upon switching research groups, my new direction of study relied heavily on conceptual foundations that I learned in his class,” he writes. “I would certainly be struggling more if it were not for his sincere interest in me.”

A recommender for Forrest writes that the physics professor makes her feel she and other students are a high priority.

“Just the other day, she was running around the Science and Research 1 building, trying to find my friends and I a flashlight that could be spectrum-split,” she writes. “She ended up bugging more than one faculty member and a few staff members, finally finding us two different flashlights. Because she stayed late into the evening, we resolved our experiment.”

A Deeper Commitment

The two share an accomplishment. Forrest and Oomman were Co-PIs of the Teaching Innovation grant from UH that incorporated inquiry-based modules into the PHYS 1122 University Physics II lab course.

They see teaching not only as a job, but as an opportunity to make an impact on someone’s life.

“It’s really valuable when the students learn the concept and they find the application in real life,” said Varghese. “That’s when I get the maximum enjoyment. That means they got what I taught.”

Sometimes, the students they teach have not even taken physics classes in high school, making it even more challenging.

“I’m always trying to do better about helping students who are struggling in the class,” said Forrest. “I think every year I find new ways to help them. And I’m going to continue to look for new ways to help the students that are the most challenged.”

- Rebeca Trejo, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics