College professors aren’t typically revered for their coolness; too many stereotypes of tweed jackets with leather patches abound. But the truth is that college professors really can be pretty cool, sometimes by studying and teaching really awesome things, sometimes just for being all-around interesting people. We’ve found ten of these college professors (listed without regard to ranking), who are all cool and intriguing in their own unique ways. Consider yourself lucky if you’ve got someone like them on campus, and be sure to share your favorite cool professor in the comments.
- Walter Lewin, Professor of Physics Emeritus, MIT
Dr. Walter Lewin is a physics professor at MIT and a Dutch-American astrophysicist. Let’s be honest, just mentioning that someone is an astrophysicist automatically gives them cool points. But clearly, Lewin does not need them. He has become famous through MIT’s Open Courseware and Academic Earth’s educational videos as the professor who makes physics come alive through demonstrations that leave students wildly entertained. His lectures are downright awesome, and interesting enough to make even the not-at-all-scientific among us watch with delight. If you haven’t been lucky enough to catch Lewin’s antics yet, please do take a moment to check out his promo including some of his greatest moments. Shooting a rifle in class, swinging on a ball like a schoolkid, and pulling elephant bones out from under a table are just a few of the delights Lewin shares with his students. We just love this guy, and with his crazy hair and awesome accent, we think he’d be perfect playing himself in a superhero comic.
- Scott Metzger, Adjunct Professor of Economics, University of Texas San Antonio
Professor Metzger certainly isn’t the first professor to drink or even brew beer, but he’s on a very short list of professors that currently own and operate a commercial brewery. (Note: Cal Poly professor Raul Cano owns Fossil Fuels Brewing, which brews with ancient yeast extracted from 25 million- to 45 million-year-old amber. Really, just like Jurassic Park. We bet he’s a cool guy, too.) But Metzger isn’t just an economics professor who goes home to play with calculators or whatever it is that regular economics professors do in their free time. He applies his economics knowledge to real life in his own small business, San Antonio brewpub Freetail Brewing Company, which by itself is pretty darn impressive. Metzger also created an economic analysis for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, Economic Impact and Potential of the Texas Craft Brewing Industry, to prove why, in a nutshell, beer is good for Texas, and even shared his insight into how business concepts from craft beer might be useful in other industries through TEDx. But perhaps the coolest thing Metzger has done lately is write a cease and desist response that made its way around the Internet, in which he drew a T-Rex waving a white flag and carbon copied the Flying Spaghetti Monster, winning the admiration of thousands of beer nerds on the Internet. Oh, and apparently he has a “hot” rating on Rate My Professors.
- Missy Cummings, Associate Professor of Aeronautics, MIT
Walter Lewin is not the only cool professor at MIT; we think Missy Cummings is pretty fabulous, too. Actually, now that we think about it, Lewin and Cummins probably hang out together all the time, playing with their flying surveillance drones and batteries made out of cans and water. Cummings designs semi-autonomous flying surveillance drones operated by, get this, smart phones, which just sounds way more interesting than anything we’ve ever done in our lives. So interesting, in fact, that she went on The Colbert Report to share her work. She even makes the possibility of a robot takeover seem like it’s not such a big deal. Colbert asked her, “How do I know that this flying little robot here is R2D2 and not the HAL 9000?” Cummings responded, “Because it has an American flag on it.” We should also mention that Cummings was full of awesome before she ever started her work with MIT: she was one of the first ever female fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy.
- Dr. Mitch Earleywine, Professor of Psychology, SUNY Albany
Dr. Mitch Earleywine’s cool professor pedigree primarily comes from his involvement with NORML, an organization working to legalize marijuana. Now, we know good and well that supporting marijuana isn’t necessarily a cool thing to everyone, but we think that anyone can appreciate a college professor who is open-minded enough to discuss typically recreational drugs from an academic standpoint. According to an interview with Capitol Outsider, Earleywine actually started out in alcohol research but quickly learned that students were more interested in marijuana, and simply followed that path. We’re really impressed that Prof. Earleywine appreciated and listened to his students enough to move from one area of research to another. You can find Earleywine delivering straight talk on the latest news and claims about marijuana, and even publishing books like the Parent’s Guide to Marijuana which by all reports, is a fair and balanced book about drugs, something we thought might not ever exist. But really, the thing we appreciate most about Earleywine is that he uses phrases like “what burns my ass” when sharing his frustration about distorted research.
- Dr. Jesse Weiss, Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies, University of the Ozarks
We think that college professors can be pretty heroic. After all, they are fountains of knowledge, encouragement, and inspiration that actually take the time to share what they know with students, and for that, just about every professor out there is a hero. But Dr. Jesse Weiss made things awesomely literal by customizing action figures to represent himself and his real-life colleagues, all with the help of just a Dremel, paint, and modeling compound. What a superbly nerdy way to show your appreciation for your colleagues! Weiss’ professional profile reveals that he does a fine job applying academic appreciation to pop culture, and has even been known to use comic books and graphic novels in his teachings. Of course, Weiss isn’t all nerd; he is into sports, as a sponsor of the Disc Golf Association on campus.
- Henry Pontell, Professor of Criminology, Law & Society, University of California Irvine
Criminology professor Henry Pontell is a pretty popular guy these days. His area of research focuses on white collar and corporate crime, a subject that is of increasing interest due to recent scandals in the media including Bernie Madoff’s multimillion dollar Ponzi scheme. According to a 2002 profile, Pontell has been waiting decades for people to understand just how terrible white collar crime really is, so he must be really pleased with the attention white collar crime is getting today. And thank goodness, because Pontell is now being tapped to share his knowledge with just about everyone important in Washington, working with the U.S. Senate and Department of Justice, as well as the FBI and Secret Service. We’d like to think that Pontell is moonlighting as a spy uncovering corporate crimes for the FBI, but of course, no one’s going to share that kind of classified information with us.
- James Miller, Professor of Theater and Speech, University of Wisconsin-Stout
James Miller has made this list because he’s an unabashed fan of Firefly, while at the same time a champion of free speech. Miller found himself in trouble with the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s police chief, who removed a Firefly poster from his office door after determining that it was a public safety threat because it included the word “kill.” And instead of just finding a new poster to put up in its place, Miller fought back, responding with killer lines including, “How dare you act in a fascistic manner and then sign your email “respectfully!” Respect liberty and respect my first amendment rights,” and in response to threatened disorderly conduct charges, “Don’t threaten me with charges that have no basis in reality — I am a committed pacifist and a devotee of non-violence, and I don’t appreciate card carrying members of the NRA who are wearing side arms and truncheons lecturing me about violence.” Strong fighting words for sure, but Miller did not have to fight back alone, and he was soon joined by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and none other than legendary author Neil Gaiman, who came together to produce a video in his defense. After earning this support, Miller won the fight and the campus backed down, as Firefly nerds everywhere supported their right to celebrate their dearly departed show.
- Maria Klawe, President, Harvey Mudd College
Technically, Maria Klawe is a college president instead of a professor, but we just can’t resist giving credit where credit is due. She’s simply that awesome. Klawe has been a rising star since her grad school days: while working her second PhD at the University of Toronto, she was offered a faculty position before she even completed her studies. Pretty awesome, but we’re really in awe of her work at Harvey Mudd College, where she’s shown other women just how great it is to work in computer science. Since her arrival in 2006, she has more than tripled the number of women pursuing computer science majors, bumping the college’s female computer science quotient to an incredible 42%. Her positive changes have earned the recognition of high profile groups in tech, and she’s now on the board of both Microsoft and Broadcom. She’s also well known for her watercolor paintings, but perhaps our favorite thing about Klawe is that she skateboards around campus.
- Mark Haub, Professor of Human Nutrition, Kansas State University
How does professor Mark Haub stay so thin? By eating Twinkies, of course, just like any normal nutrition professor. In 2010, Haub made headlines by following a “convenience store diet” for 10 weeks, eating Hostess, Little Debbie, Oreos, and Doritos with one important rule: he could only eat 1,800 calories or less each day. He lost an impressive 27 pounds in those short 10 weeks. Haub wins the cool prize for hilariously bucking common knowledge, while proving a very important point about the role of calorie counting and portion sizes in weight loss.
- Randy Pausch, Professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction and Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Randy Pausch is the only non-living professor on this list, but like so many other incredible professors, his legacy has lived on beyond his own life. In August 2007, Pausch was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and was told he had just three to six months of good health left. The following month, he delivered an incredibly powerful lecture that has been viewed by millions, and even led to a book he co-authored before his death, called The Last Lecture. We think Pausch is one of the coolest professors in the world for taking a terminal diagnosis and turning it into an incredible opportunity to impact millions of people even after his life was over.