GATES MILLS — Only five teachers across the country are bestowed with Northwestern University’s Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award. This year, Bob Shurtz, a calculus and physics teacher at Hawken School, is one of the five winners.
Mr. Shurtz, a Solon resident, was nominated by a 2015 Hawken graduate, Robert Gray, who is now a graduating senior at Northwestern University. Mr. Gray said that his former teacher at Hawken impacted his success in college.
“He has a clear mastery of the material he teaches, which allows him to give students an intuitive understanding of the problems they are solving,” Mr. Gray said in a press release. “Beyond that, he has many great quirky sayings and lab demonstrations, which he utilizes to make learning the fundamentals much easier. This gave me a strong baseline understanding of physics and math, which I have built upon in college.”
Mr. Shurtz said that he worked with Mr. Gray when he took several of his classes, including AP physics. Mr. Shurtz recalled that Mr. Gray was in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine program, and Mr. Shurtz is the director of the STEMM program at Hawken.
“He was a very strong and dedicated student,” Mr. Shurtz said of his former student.
Mr. Shurtz said that Mr. Gray asked a lot of questions in class, and they shared a similar sense of humor. They have continued to keep in touch after graduation, and Mr. Shurtz added that he is glad that Mr. Gray excelled at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.
The award includes $5,000 for Mr. Shurtz and $5,000 for Hawken. Mr. Shurtz will help decide how the school’s financial gift is spent. He is the coach for the speech and debate team and said that the team is often seeking financial aid to cover travel costs for competitions.
In addition to coaching the debate team, Mr. Shurtz teaches physics, multivariable calculus and differential equations. He has served as the director of STEMM Pathways since 2008.
As part of the application process for the teaching award, Mr. Shurtz submitted an essay on his teaching philosophy. He wrote that he blends three concepts into his teaching. First, Mr. Shurtz said that he helps students see connections in their work. He created a class at Hawken called “AP Fizzcalc,” a fully integrated two-period course that uses physics to teach calculus. By learning the subjects together, the students have a more thorough understanding of how physics and calculus are related.
Second, Mr. Shurtz said that he always challenges the students. He has high expectations for them but also offers encouragement and support. The third pillar of his teaching philosophy is to never memorize the material. Mr. Shurtz explained that the students need to fully understand why a problem is solved with a particular method.
Mr. Shurtz said that he hopes that his enthusiasm for math and physics helps the students learn.
“I’ve always been fascinated with how the world works,” he said. “I view physics as an operating guide to the universe. You can make thousands of different observations about the world but you only need a small number of physics principles to explain those thousands of different phenomena.”
Mr. Shurtz earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry and math from University of Michigan and received a master’s degree in physics from Harvard University. While in graduate school, he said that he preferred teaching over research and found that Hawken was nearby his hometown of Toledo and had an excellent reputation. Mr. Shurtz started teaching at Hawken in 1985.
From 2005 to 2008, Mr. Shurtz said that he worked as the academic director for the U.S. Physics Team, where he coached annual training camps at the University of Maryland and visited Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Iran and Vietnam for international competitions.
Mr. Shurtz will receive his award at an honors ceremony at Northwestern on June 20 and he will be recognized at the university’s commencement the following day.