David Voorhees champions community-college science

AAAS Fellow David Voohees says one of the most exciting things about his job is seeing that older student looking for a second chance in life ease into a chair in the front row of his class. (Photo: Waubonsee Community College)

Most of the thousands of earth-science students geologist David Voorhees has taught over the years haven't majored in his discipline, or earned degrees in science at all. Nonetheless, he considers them to be his rock-solid success stories.

"Teaching my students to be more effective learners is as much a part of my job as teaching them about glaciers, rocks and minerals," says Voorhees, who teaches at Waubonsee Community College, west of Chicago, Ill.

Voorhees, who was named a Fellow in 2014, has embraced as his mission communicating science to some of the most vulnerable and undervalued students in the nation, the 46 percent of college students who attend America's community colleges.

Not only has he typically taught five earth science classes each semester for the past 13 years at Waubonsee, but in 2011 Voorhees also served as the first president of Geo2YC, the community college division of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, which he helped found in order to improve geoscience education and opportunity for community-college students across the country.

Voorhees argues that with the current low cost per credit-hour of $110 for in-district students, a Waubonsee Community College STEM education is the equivalent of "the University of Illinois, at Walmart prices." In some ways, and for some students, he thinks two-year colleges like Waubonsee have more to offer than four-year colleges.

"I bring the same rigor to these classes I would in a four-year university, and I also spend more one-on-one time with my students," he says.

President Obama considers the community-college option so important to the continued economic health of the country that he devoted part of his State of the Union address this year to a proposal that included bringing their cost down "to zero" through a combination of federal and state funding.

Many of those who find their way to community colleges are "nontraditional" students—veterans, homemakers and other older people, perhaps with full-time jobs, who want to earn a degree. Voorhees says one of the most exciting things about his job is seeing an older student looking for a second chance in life ease into a chair in the front row of his class.

"I have some amazing students, and I never judge people by their dress, their appearance, or even their actions, because as soon as I do, I'm wrong," Voorhees says. "But those nontraditional students who come in and sit in the front row, they'll do the best. They need that degree."

In addition to more affordable tuition, community colleges offer open admission and flexible course schedules in more than 1,100 locations nationwide—more than 1,000 of them public institutions like Waubonsee.

Waubonsee students don't declare specific majors, but of the hundreds of students Voorhees teaches every year, typically only three or four will eventually major in earth sciences, he says. Many of his students need help with what he calls "metacognition," or thinking about what they could do to improve the way they learn.

One of his important tasks, he says, is to give his students the tools they will need to be good citizens, mindful of "where to go to find out about the science" about such public health and safety issues as climate change, the status of the groundwater they drink, or mass wasting—a kind of slope movement that can lead to landslides and mudslides.

"I'd like them to know enough not to buy a house that might be involved in that," Voorhees says.

He is thrilled when he takes students out in the field and they realize that the hill they're standing on is one of the "moraines" that the great glaciers pushed up in the Midwest during the last ice age—when "that light bulb goes off and they put together what they see with what they've learned."

"My students leave with a better understanding of the Earth than they had coming into my class," Voorhees says. And he hopes he is contributing to a scientifically better-informed electorate as well.

Voorhees has personal experience when it comes to nontraditional career paths. When he was an undergraduate economics major at the University of Rochester, he took Geology 101—so-called "rocks for jocks"—and it changed his life, he says. Inspired by his professor's energy and enthusiasm, and enthralled by basic science, he went on to pursue a master's degree in geology at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

After that, Voorhees spent nine years working in various oil fields for Gulf and Chevron before going to the University of Illinois for a Ph.D. All went well until his adviser died. Voorhees, whose course work was complete, left Urbana after "an emotional process" with his dissertation hanging fire—and so it remains.

He did, however, meet his wife in Urbana, Rachel Kane, now an equine veterinarian. Together, they run Entropy Farm in Woodstock, Ill., a horse boarding/breeding/training facility billed as "55 acres of horse heaven."

Voorhees eventually found his way to Waubonsee, where he didn't need a Ph.D. to teach, and came to realize that he loved teaching.

One pervasive problem, though, is that colleges like Waubonsee often don't have a geology department as such, full of colleagues to bounce ideas off, to make one another better teachers.

"They call it the "lone wolf syndrome," observes Voorhees, and it's why groups like Geo2YC are such a great idea.