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UW Math Lecturer Spitler Receives Ellbogen Lifetime Teaching Award

May 1, 2017
head portrait of a man
John Spitler is the recipient of the 2017 Ellbogen Lifetime Teaching Award. (UW Photo)

A gifted mathematician whose enthusiasm for math has influenced generations of Wyomingites has been honored with the University of Wyoming’s 2017 Ellbogen Lifetime Teaching Award.

John Spitler, who during his 32-year UW career has received at least 15 awards for his teaching, earned the annual accolade that recognizes the long, distinguished and exemplary career of one senior faculty member who has excelled as a teacher at UW.

“His enthusiasm for mathematics is contagious,” says fellow Department of Mathematics faculty member Myron Allen, who nominated Spitler for the honor. “Students enter his classes fearful of the subject and often resentful that they’re required to take it. They leave not only with newfound confidence in their own abilities, but also with a glimpse of why so many sane people are passionate about the field.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Vanderbilt University in 1977, Spitler did a year of graduate work in chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis before coming to UW for graduate studies in mathematics in 1983.

For 10 years, he served in a research capacity as a graduate research assistant and assistant research scientist for the Department of Mathematics, earning his master’s degree in 1988 and pursuing his Ph.D. until joining the math faculty in 1994. His instructional career began as a graduate teaching assistant and advanced through the ranks as assistant, associate and senior lecturer.

In all, he has taught close to 3,000 students in over 80 course sections -- ranging from introductory to upper-level classes -- during his 32 years at UW.

“Those of us who have worked with him, who have witnessed not only his passion but his persistent efforts to improve teaching and learning, know his devotion is unusual even on a campus where great teaching is, in most places, still treasured,” says Alyson Hagy, interim Outreach School dean and professor in the Creative Writing Program. “John never loses sight of the students he has chosen to work with -- even if they arrive in his classroom unprepared. Never.”

He also played an influential role in two university-wide committees to redesign UW’s general studies program.

In addition to his work with and for UW students, Spitler has taught summer institutes for K-12 math teachers and mentored math instructors at community colleges as well. He served on the governor’s 2007 advisory panel for the Hathaway Success Curriculum and has been part of grant-funded efforts to improve math education in Wyoming’s K-12 schools.

“It is quite rare to find such an advanced mathematical mind on the level of John’s who also cares about the education of high-schoolers. But that is the essence of who John is,” says former UW student Dax Crum, now a technology developer for Intel Corp. “He does not use his mathematical gifts to empower himself…; rather, John uses his mathematical gifts to empower others to follow their dreams.”

For his part, Spitler credits his colleagues and students for his career success.

“I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to first study mathematics here in Laramie, grow to embrace its power and beauty, and finally to share all of that in the classroom, encouraging an amazing number of students to do the same throughout the years,” he says. “I would certainly like to thank the Ellbogen family for all they have done and continue to do to enhance quality instruction at UW, my colleagues in math who have unwaveringly believed in me since I walked into that first college algebra class in the fall of 1983, and countless others across our campus, at the Wyoming community colleges and around the state with whom it's been my privilege to work. But most of all, I want to thank all of the students who have made the effort to take up the challenge of what often is a fearful journey.”

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