NIU’s Dan Gebo wins Professor of the Year for hands-on teaching

By Margaret Maka

Anthropology professor Dan Gebo will be named Illinois Professor of the Year at an awards luncheon today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Professor of the Year award is given to one winner from each state in categories like community colleges and research institutions, as well as a national winner. Gebo, who started at NIU in 1987, is a physical anthropologist specializing in bones, fossils and evolution. Gebo said he’s worked for 15 years in China, where interesting fossils have emerged.

“I try to bring in a lot of materials to class, and spend a lot of time with hands-on type of learning,” Gebo said. “I try to show these things off and see if I can generate some interest or tell some interesting stories about the topic of the day, and hopefully students ask questions so I can fill in some details.”

Gebo has won every award NIU has to offer faculty, including being named Presidential Research Professor, Board of Trustees Professor and Presidential Teaching Professor, which he said he worked hard to gain.

“The key to teaching is you have some kind of topic you want to talk about, and unfortunately most topics that are interesting are complicated,” Gebo said. “So your job as a teacher is to somehow simplify it, make it interesting and also get some questions from the students which hopefully fill in some of the background and detail and hopefully generate some interest.”

In his classes, Gebo said students like to talk about his articles, which have been published in journals like “Nature” and “Science,” so they get an inside view of how a scientist works on projects.

“It’s always kind of nice when the students catch on and they say, ‘Wow, I can see why this is important,’” Gebo said. “And that’s where a lot of the hands-on stuff comes in for me. Like if I bring in, I don’t know, the Lucy skeleton, they get to see just how tiny Lucy was and she walked on two legs, things like that … so students usually like that stuff.”

Winning the Illinois Professor of the Year Award will create positive publicity for NIU, Gebo said.

“Let’s face it: NIU has a lot of great faculty. They work very hard, they’re great teachers and so on,” Gebo said. “They spend a lot of time with our undergraduates and I think this is just one way NIU get a little press and a little publicity for their efforts.”