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One out of 5,000

When The Teaching Company recruited the nation's best collegiate professors, they snagged JMU's Scott Stevens
By Martha Graham

Scott Stevens has a beautiful mind. But unlike some smart people, he can take complex ideas and explain them. JMU has long recognized Stevens' prowess. Now the world is discovering this master teacher. Stevens is one of an elite group of collegiate professors whose courses are available through The Teaching Company, which vets the top one percent of the nation's professors and selects only one out of every 5,000 professors they consider.

JMU professor Scott Stevens receives top marks from his students...and The Teaching Company.

JMU professor Scott Stevens receives top marks from his students...and The Teaching Company.

Decisions as Game Theory

After a recruiter for The Teaching Company saw the professor in action, the company engaged him to write and film a 24-part lecture series, "Games People Play: Game Theory in Life, Business, and Beyond."

The course explores game theory, the complex branch of mathematics defined as a scientific study of interactive, rational decision making. It's the field made famous by A Beautiful Mind, the story of Nobel Prize winning economist and mathematician John Nash. Game theory is elemental to all human arenas from dating to high-stakes multinational diplomacy, and Stevens makes it accessible. "I use lots of stories," he says.

Two men are to meet for dinner. Neither knows which restaurant and their cell phones aren't working. They could eat separately, but that's not a desirable solution. "There's no line of logic you can follow, which makes game theory so interesting," Stevens says. "It's about figuring out what you think someone else thinks you'll do." Two prisoners are interrogated in separate rooms. What goes through their minds? Will my buddy rat on me? Should I rat him out? That's the crux of game theory.

A classroom favorite

Stevens' commercial students give him high marks, confirming what his JMU students have known all along. Five times they've voted him "Students' Choice for Outstanding Professor in the College of Business." He's also received the Carl L. Harter Award twice for distinguished teaching. On Rate My Professor, Stevens has a smiley face. "But," he bemoans, "I've never gotten a 'hotness'.''

Stevens joined the College of Business in 1985 as a professor of computer information systems and management science. He's also developed an online course for the MBA program and served as the faculty-member-in-residence for the London Studies Abroad program.

More than math

While the professor delights in introducing new audiences to subjects he loves, he's a staunch believer in the Socratic model of teaching where teacher and student interact. Herein lies his passion: he loves the interchange that only a classroom allows.

"I love being in education," he says. "I love being a teacher. If I won the lottery, I'd still be teaching." That makes JMU and Stevens a good fit. "At JMU there's more dedication to the student," he adds. "I do everything I can to get that interaction going."

More than anything, he wants students to think. "The wrong way to learn," he says, "is to constantly reinvent the wheel." He wants students to master material he delivers, but not for the sake of mastery -- instead to understand how all the parts fit together. Think of it this way, he explains from his office in Showker Hall, immediately launching into another story. This one's about a rat, a block, a red wagon and an inclined plane.

In the end, Professor Stevens is teaching far more than math. He's teaching life skills -- to think critically, to use knowledge efficiently, and to tell the difference between truth and lies, to be verbal, to express yourself and to self-assess, he says. "We can't do enough of this."