Brock Brown named 17th Piper Professor at Texas State
When most people think of geography, they think of maps and climates. But that’s only part of the story, explains associate geography professor Brock Brown, who this year was named Texas State’s 17th Piper Professor. The title, given annually to Texas college teachers by the Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation, recognizes excellence in teaching, research, and mentoring.
Brown is the university’s eighth Piper Foundation honoree in a row. “I think that is what’s so amazing,” Brown says. “That really underscores the university’s commitment to undergraduate education, even as it transitions to a growing graduate program.”
Of the award, Brown expressed humility, saying that it could have gone to many deserving faculty on campus. The Piper Foundation chooses honorees who are well-rounded, outgoing teachers devoted to their professions and who have made a special impact on their students and the community.
Thank Geographers for Healthy Teeth
Geography is about much more than memorizing the cities on maps, Brown says, his enthusiasm for the subject lighting up his bearded face.
“Geography is a broadly applicable, interdisciplinary perspective,” he says. “Geographers can observe and analyze anything distributed across earth space — political behavior, precipitation, crime, levels of educational attainment — and try to investigate the underlying spatial processes responsible for the observed patterns.”
Geographic correlations can be used to find answers to many questions. For example, in the 1940s and ’50s, dentists and public health officials were puzzled that some regions of the country had higher levels of tooth decay than others.
By cross-referencing two maps of the nation — one showing areas where tooth decay was prevalent and another showing where certain minerals occurred in drinking water — geographers were able to identify a trend.
“They found that places with naturally higher concentrations of fluoride had less tooth decay than other parts of the country,” Brown says. “Dentists alone looking at the problem would have had trouble coming up with that solution."
A Proud Commitment
Brown’s office reveals a man who’s not going anywhere soon. Numerous globes peek out from stacks of books lining wall-high shelves. More than a couple of chairs invite students and colleagues to gather and stay awhile. Sipping his coffee from a recycled Ball jar, Brown says that he’s taught at Texas State since 1992, and is proud to have contributed to what’s now the largest and one of the highest ranked undergraduate geography programs in the country.
Students are attracted to the geography program for many reasons. Texas State’s location in San Marcos provides a unique laboratory for students interested in environmental studies, physical geography, water resources, economic, and urban geography. The San Marcos River is home to eight federally listed endangered species found nowhere else in the world.
The department’s reputation for providing high quality training with practical applications also attracts students, Brown says.
“We train our students to be successful in employment and graduate studies,” Brown says. “Many of our students go on to make a real difference. For example, many of our graduates work for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.”
Brown has served as undergraduate program coordinator for the Department of Geography, where he has recruited, advised, and taught hundreds of students. He currently serves on the Undergraduate Committee and advises about 150 geography undergrads each semester. Drawing upon his experience as the program coordinator, he co-authored five articles that provide guidelines and ideas for universities looking to make their geography programs as successful as the one at Texas State.
“It’s selfish, really,” Brown says. “I want people in this field to do well and make a contribution.”
In addition to being named a Piper Professor, Brown has received many other awards for teaching. He is the only faculty member to have received Texas State’s Presidential Award for Excellence at the instructor/assistant professor level. He is also the recipient of the Alumni Association Teaching Award of Honor, the International Studies Professor of the Year Award, the Honors Program Goodbread Advisor of the Year Award and the Jackie Couture NTSO Professor of the Year Award, and eight Alpha Chi Favorite Professor Awards.
Inspired by the Next Generation
Brown’s classes focus on urban and economic geography. He sets an example with his life outside the classroom. His San Marcos home is an exercise in wildscaping, a practice that uses native plants to mitigate the effects of urban
“Wildscaping provides a habitat for native species, conserves water, and provides private rural-like spaces and views in an urban environment,” Brown says.
As an instructor, Brown’s goal is to teach students the critical thinking and reasoning skills they need to find correlations between seemingly unrelated phenomena.
“I want to teach them life lessons, not just content,” Brown says. “Content changes all the time. What we can do is teach students to observe, analyze and work intelligently to identify and solve problems.”
Brown says his students have been his inspiration for the past 16 years. The next generation, he says, is going to be charged with solving problems such as urban sprawl and sustainable transportation, environmental change, and economic uncertainty.
“My students understand the uncertainties they face and want to learn everything that they can. There’s a large number of students who are vitally involved in what they’re doing,” Brown says. “My students go down and clean the river and support good causes. I have students who are going to make a difference, and that’s the balance in my life.”