Ultimate rewards

Michael Nichols reflects on his teaching career after accepting the Culicchia Award

Receiving this award is a humbling experience, given the many excellent teachers at this University and particularly in my department.
I’d like to thank the students who wrote nominating letters, particularly, Emily Tillmaand and Joe Cody for coordinating the process and Jim Reddy, Beth Anne McClure, Christy Leposa, Meghan Brown, and Danielle Maholtz; and my colleagues Mark Waner, Nick Baumgartner, and Mike Setter for this application and Catherine Miller for previous ones.

I’d also like to thank my parents and sisters for the support they’ve given me through the years. I am the person I am today because of them. We all have days that change everything in our lives. Mine occurred five days before Christmas my first semester here when my father passed away. He would have liked the environmental chemistry research I’ve done. It would have reminded us of days spent fishing on the Alleghany River. My parents taught me and my sisters how to work hard, have faith in God, and the importance of helping people. They stand as the greatest personal role models I can ever have in my life.

I don’t think there’s anything that special about my classroom teaching. I’m an old-school lecturer. I’ve taught primarily organic chemistry, which is a content-heavy subject, throughout my career with some others included.

I’ve always viewed my job in the classroom to explain complicated material, preferably in an organized way, and using multiple explanations, so, hopefully, one sticks with a student. Organic chemistry is notorious for being a “weed ourse” for medical school, but I’ve never approached my courses with that attitude.

I’ve never told students they couldn’t make it into medical school, although it might have provided extra incentive. That’s not my role as a teacher. I recently saw an endocrinologist/diabetes doctor, and she asked what I do. When I said teach organic chemistry, she said, “That must suck for you.” Obviously, this someone who didn’t like or appreciate organic chemistry. Well, organic doesn’t suck for me, although it well may for my students. I’d consider myself successful if, after teaching organic chemistry for 19 years, I’ve had more students with positive experiences than negative ones.

If this award was only about classroom teaching, I doubt I’d be standing here. So, I’d like to spend a few minutes explaining how my role as a teacher and chemist is much broader than the classroom and lab.

Before accepting my position at JCU, I interviewed at two other Jesuit universities; but it was during my interview at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that I gave my best description of what I anticipated it would be like as a faculty member at a Jesuit university. When I met with the head colonel, he explained West Point was hiring civilian instructors to show the cadets there wasn’t as wide a gap in the civilian and military worlds as they perceived. What they were looking for were faculty members, who in addition to being outstanding teachers, could also model honor, ethics, and service. I responded that I thought the three Jesuit universities at which I interviewed were looking for similar qualities.

In that spirit, let me describe the ways I’ve extended my teaching into research and service, with a big caveat – most of what I describe has occurred only after I was awarded tenure.

Since the early ’90s, undergraduate research has become an integral part of the chemistry curriculum. As a department, we’ve often described
undergraduate research as the ultimate form of teaching. At a Ph.D. school, students work for the advisor; at an undergraduate school, students work with the advisor. That’s a meaningful distinction.

During the past 17 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of students who enjoyed solving problems that didn’t have a published answer. Some students initially were unsure of their abilities and became confident and successful, ultimately moving on to graduate school or industry. During the many hours we’ve spent in the lab together, I’ve gotten a chance to know these students better, and I’m always amazed at their maturity, ability to balance academics with leadership positions and extracurricular activities, and their commitment to their faith. I don’t have to tell anyone in this room John Carroll has great students; and while they learn from me, I learn as much from them.

One of the goals in the mission statement of the chemistry department is to help students see the wonder and beauty of science. This isn’t only for our undergraduate students, so another aspect of my teaching involves middle- and high-school students. Each fall, one to six high-school students, usually from Beaumont High School, come to JCU and use our instruments and my lab to perform science fair projects. The students typically have a question they want to answer, and their projects have varied from determining how much caffeine is in chocolate, to whether peppermint or spearmint oils prevent bacteria growth, to how many antioxidants are in vitamin waters. These are talented young men and women, and I get to use my gifts as a chemist and teacher to expand their interest in science hopefully.

In summer 2000, Faith Whitworth, who teaches general chemistry lab, conceived an idea of a chemistry camp for kids. Half of our department faculty participates in this camp. Faith is the heart, soul, and organizational wizard behind a program that’s designed to raise the kids’ interest in science.

Throughout the years, we’ve worked to develop a variety of experiments that the students perform in a fun environment. More importantly, they take stuff home every day so they can talk to their parents about science. Each of my colleagues leads a day’s activities, I do forensics, and Mark Waner and I end the week with impressive explosions. Parent evaluations always are glowing, and they often comment that chemistry camp was the best summer camp their kids attended.

Michael Nichols and Julia Karolle-Berg, previous Culicchia Award winner

This past summer, Hope Academy boys and girls had the opportunity to do a couple of these activities. We figured how fast a Nerf dart travels using a ballistics pendulum, radar gun and my cell phone and solved the case of “Who Catnapped Mittens” using chromatography and fingerprints. As two of the girls were leaving, they asked “Can we come back and do this again?” I knew I had accomplished my goal.

The last area in which I’ve combined teaching and research is environmental chemistry. During the past 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of government organizations on water quality projects to determine whether constructed wetlands clean storm water run-off and the source of nutrients that caused a lake to undergo an algal bloom. I also helped set up a volunteer water quality monitoring program in Euclid Creek where I worked with students from other colleges and average citizens. It’s been satisfying to share my expertise with these organizations.

Like many in this room, I’ve also served as an FSA on three spring-break immersion experiences. About four years ago, Catherine Miller told me a new immersion trip, focusing on environmental issues in Kentucky, was being planned. She promptly volunteered me to Peggy Finucane, and I promptly volunteered her to be the co-leader. The first year, Catherine and I took students to Mount Vernon, Ky., where we picked up trash from the side of a dirt road and lost the keys to the van. Welcome to the first day of immersion! We also saw mountain-top removal and learned about life and environmental issues in a small Kentucky town.

The next year, we took students to Bethlehem Farms, a former Catholic Worker Farm in southern West Virginia, where we participated in a week of sustainable and intentional living, took part in service projects, and met incredible people.

Two years ago, we lead our last spring-break immersion trip to view various environmental issues in West Virginia, from Marcellus Shale drilling, to a wind farm, to more mountain-top coal removal. Because I’m not a person who normally volunteers unless asked, I’m grateful to Mark, Faith, and Catherine for prompting, and sometimes volunteering me to get involved in these activities.

While the main part of my job is classroom and laboratory teaching, it’s these nonclassroom teaching and research activities that have given me the opportunity to grow the most professionally during the past 10 years. Combining teaching, research, and service fits perfectly with John Carroll’s mission.

I end with a quote that partially explains how I feel. In “The Inner Ring,” C.S. Lewis wrote: “If in your working hours, you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.”

This can be interpreted as an arrogant statement. However, I view this as a goal I can achieve at the end of my career. For the past 19 years, for better or worse, I’ve made teaching students my end. While this award is meaningful and appreciated, what has been the most meaningful – and I’m sure it’s for everyone in this room – have been the cards, short notes, and emails students have sent thanking me for helping them in class or in lab or simply not giving up on them. To me, those are the ultimate rewards of being a teacher.

Thank you again for this award. It is truly an honor.

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