CONCOURSE — At Hostos Community College in The Bronx, Professor Rees Shad is kind of a big deal.
On a recent afternoon, one student stopped by his office to ask if a friend could sit in on his class. Minutes later, another student saw him in the hallway and offered some unprompted praise. When he had left, still another student heard Shad’s name and blurted out, “Best professor!”
“When he’s on campus, he’s always being followed by a posse of students,” said Hostos president Félix Matos Rodríguez. “He’s one of our up-and-coming stars.”
Shad’s popularity, among faculty as well as students, may be due to his unusual background as a carpenter, musician, audio engineer, software developer and avid gamer before he became an academic.
Or it may be because he almost single-handedly developed the college’s popular media design program, which offers degrees in design and animation, music production and recording, and game design.
Or because, in just the past few months, he co-authored a game design textbook with students and helped win a $610,000 grant to use gaming as a way to teach basic math and science skills.
Whatever the source of his campus-celebrity status, it was solidified this month when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named Shad the 2012 New York State Professor of the Year.
“It’s kind of silly,” said Shad, 48, who lives in Putnam County. “I love what I do, and that’s all there is to it.”
Shad’s early adventures didn’t always suggest an award-winning professor in the making.
The adopted son of a Wall Street executive who became chairman of the SEC, Shad suffered from hyperactivity as a child before it was widely recognized as a behavioral disorder. By 11, he was self-medicating with illicit drugs.
As a teenager, he was sent to a Connecticut boarding school, where he eventually got clean. While there, he started dating a girl who is now his wife.
Shad played guitar and sang in a string of bands as a child. As he got older, he began to record albums as a singer-songwriter and tour the country, sometimes for 10 months out of the year.
He also found an old barn in Argyle, New York, which he converted into a state-of-the-art recording studio. Over time, Shania Twain, Joan Osborne, the Flaming Lips and many others worked there and Shad launched his own record label.
Along the way, he also worked as a carpenter and designed interactive CD-ROM programs.
But eventually Shad burnt out on his various enterprises and sold his companies and studio. He returned to school and, by 2003, had become an adjunct professor of design and technology at Parsons.
In 2007, he accepted an offer from Hostos, which is a part of the CUNY network, to develop a design and animation program for the school.
The following year he added a digital music concentration to the media design program and oversaw the construction of a campus recording studio. This January, he launched a game design major.
The program is built, Shad said, to convince students art and poverty do not have to go hand in hand.
But in shaping the program and curricula, Shad has had to confront a stark reality — the majority of Hostos students, like those at other CUNY schools, enter college with gaping holes in their academic knowledge.
Last year, 90 percent of entering Hostos freshmen had to take remedial classes in at least one subject, according to school data.
Those initial deficiencies can have lasting effects. Among students who enter CUNY’s community colleges requiring some remediation, only one-in-four graduates in six years.
When Shad introduced the game design courses in January, he watched many students who were still struggling to master core subjects, like English and math, fail to decipher the high-level readings.
“They were hard to get through,” said Chris Aiken, 22, a game design major who wants to write about gaming as a journalist. “I know a lot of people in the class were very confused about the readings.”
Shad’s solution was straightforward — he created a new textbook at his students' level.
Over the summer, Shad penned the text. Then he enlisted his son, a 25-year-old audio engineer, and four former and current students, including Aiken, to edit the writing, make it more student-friendly and design the layout and illustrations. This fall, the self-published book made its debut in a few classes.
In October, Shad and a colleague, Catherine Lewis, won a $610,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for an even more ambitious plan to address students’ skill gaps.
He and his team will rewrite the remedial and entry-level math and science curricula so that students create and play games to master the fundamentals. If the plan works, then the courses will eventually be offered to students in other departments and even in local high schools.
“It’s a beautiful project,” said Rodríguez, the Hostos president. “We’ll teach you things you’re a little afraid of by playing to your strengths.”
Raymond Diaz, 21, a digital music major who called Shad “a blast,” said he’s excited about the professor’s vision of game-centered education.
“Games have probably taught me more common knowledge and history than the majority of stuff I learned in high school,” he said. “And if you learn to create games too, that would take it to the next level.”