Professor Kyaw Tha Paw U carries a cheat sheet of sorts to class, with thumbnail photos and names of his students. Across a sea of faces, this personal class roster helps him learn each of their names, an effort he takes very seriously.
“He learned everyone’s names,” a student wrote on a class evaluation. “In doing so, I knew he could call on me at any time, which caused me to always pay attention. Amazing professor!”
UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May “interrupted” this amazing professor’s classroom yesterday (March 11) to deliver a special announcement: Professor Paw U is this year’s winner of the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. The $50,000 prize is funded by gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation.
“Teaching is a social interaction,” said Paw U, a professor of atmospheric sciences and biometeorologist in the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources. “It’s a partnership. You’re facilitating their learning. As a teacher, you have to know who they are.”
Paw U joined UC Davis 36 years ago, raising his three daughters in the community with his partner, Ruth Adele Bartlett.
“His commitment to undergraduate teaching and to the service of others, as well as his humble and approachable character, make him the perfect representative of the highest ideals for UC Davis faculty,” said LAWR department chair William Horwath in his nomination letter.
Research, teaching and a love of discovery
Paw U teaches about four courses per year — twice the average amount — including the popular undergraduate class, “Severe and Unusual Weather.” In addition to his high course load, he maintains an active research program focused on interactions among ecosystems, the atmosphere, animals and plants. He studies water loss ranging from 500-year-old forests to annual crops. His research helped develop a tool farmers use to manage water use. He also researches turbulence, carbon balance and gas exchanges that underpin climate change models.
Paw U loves the sense of discovery in his research, what he calls “that false pride that you’ve uncovered something that hasn’t been discovered in the history of the world, and finding new connections that haven’t been put together.”
He carries that love of inquiry into the classroom, where he goes out of his way to ensure his students are not only known, but also engaged. Mini-feedback forms help him communicate with all students, particularly those who may not be as vocal or even as facially expressive in class, so he can better recognize if they’re understanding or struggling.
A community of droplets
Teaching prize winners demonstrate a life of service woven throughout their work, and Paw U is no exception. From K-12 educational outreach to partnering with the UC Davis Feminist Research Institute and others championing underrepresented voices in STEM, issues of diversity and inclusion greatly inform his approach to life and teaching.
“Professor Paw U has achieved an exemplary record of teaching, research and service, and he is committed to promoting diversity and inclusion in his teaching and mentoring,” said Helene Dillard, dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
A native New Yorker, his parents were from Burma, a country where women kept their names and property rights when they married and which historically was less patriarchal than the United States. His friends and experiences introduced him to the complexities of feminism and racism in society, and he calls his awareness of these issues a “natural progression from my history.”
He weaves those concepts into class, choosing course content, scenarios and videos with ethnic and gender diversity in mind and ensuring his examples represent California’s demography. In one favorite classroom demonstration, he shows students how rainbows exist and how out of one color comes a diversity of colors. It takes a community of droplets — hundreds of thousands of individuals — to get the rainbow we see.
Words that pop up again and again on his student evaluations: Nice. Approachable. Helpful. Passionate.
“When I first started my journey at UC Davis, I thought this class would be the least interesting course for my major, but Kyaw Tha made this course the most interesting one I have taken,” wrote a former student of his “Meteorological Measurements and Instrumentation” course. “There is no other instructor I have ever had who comes close to the level of effort Kyaw Tha goes through to ensure his students succeed.”
About the undergraduate teaching prize
Established in 1986, the UC Davis Prize for Undergraduate Teaching and Scholarly Achievement was created to honor faculty who are both exceptional teachers and scholars. The $50,000 prize is among the largest of its kind in the country and is funded through philanthropic gifts managed by the UC Davis Foundation. The winner is selected based on the nominations of other professors, research peers, representatives from the UC Davis Foundation Board of Trustees, and students. See a list of all the recipients since the award’s inception.