Cotter has, in the words of his nominators, "created and applied a dynamic process that includes making geology and science accessible, getting students involved, and enriching students' learning experiences with independent research." Bart Finzel, vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean, adds that Cotter "stands out for his engaging teaching methods, efforts to make science courses an integral part of the liberal arts education, and sustained encouragement and support of students."
Cotter's commitment to these initiatives stems not from his own personal interests or agenda, but from his understanding of the campus's needs and his desire to serve them. His enthusiasm for internationalizing the undergraduate curriculum, for encouraging an interdisciplinary approach to science and liberal arts education, is inspired and driven by the learning environment at Morris.
"My motivation doesn't come from what I would particularly plan on, but what the campus is doing," says Cotter. "We've had some incredibly good institutional ideas that I've been able to join, and it's served our students well."
To this end, Cotter has developed a set of educational philosophies, objectives, and methods that focus on increasing the accessibility of geology and general science, involving students in his field of study, and encouraging independent research as an educational experience. He has developed these pillars by supporting the undergraduate learning process.
"I think learning occurs best if students are enjoying what they're doing, if they're engaged in what they're doing, and if they feel welcome in the process," he says. "From that perspective, what I have to do is give students opportunities, help them feel comfortable, and in the end, sort of step back and let them do their thing. It's really just facilitating their learning process."
It would seem his approach has been a successful one. During his 30-year tenure at Morris, Cotter has taught Environmental Geology to more than 7,000 students, many of whom have responded with rave reviews. Furthermore, his nomination for the UMMAA Teaching Award was prompted by two of his students: Chelsea Tarbell '14 and Michelle LaGarde '15. To Cotter, that has been the most rewarding—and validating—aspect of receiving this particular honor.
"It's nice to get a positive endorsement at any time the more important thing is that it was initiated by students. Being nominated by people who are saying thanks—whether you're a new faculty member or an old one, that's nice to hear."
Cotter is a recipient of both the Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education and the UMM Faculty Distinguished Research Award as well as a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math and Engineering. Before joining the faculty at Morris in 1984, he earned a bachelor of arts at Franklin and Marshall College as well as a master of science and a doctorate from Lehigh University.