Waubonsee Community College has its own ‘rock star’ in Professor David Voorhees

Ask David Voorhees what he and other geologists see when they look at a rock

Geologists tend to see the world differently than most people.

At least that’s the opinion of David Voorhees, an earth sciences and geology professor at Waubonsee Community College. So when a geologist looks at a rock they don’t just see the rock, they see clues about the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, Voorhees said.

“I have a deep passion for telling the story and history of the Earth to my students, and telling them of the fragile, yet resilient, nature of this little blue planet we call Earth,” he said. “My primary goal is to be the best teacher and mentor I can be to my students, both in and out of the classroom. I strive to bring as many research-based pedagogies into my classrooms for my students’ engagement and education.”

Voorhees said he discovered his love for the science from his first geology professor, Bob Sutton at the University of Rochester, and he uses his model of passion and engagement in hopes of spreading that enthusiasm to his own students.

Among many of the comments on evaluations from his former students that he shared was one example of the appreciation they have for Voorhees’ enthusiasm: “You can tell he really loves what he does, and that is what makes a good teacher. He challenges you, but only in a good way. I will leave this class knowing everything he taught me because of this.”

From another student’s evaluation: “He truly cares about students and wants everyone to succeed. He has helped me become a better student and develop better study habits that I honestly didn’t have before. I feel better prepared for when I transfer to a university.”

Voorhees has not only earned accolades from his students. He recently was selected as Waubonsee’s Outstanding Faculty Member of 2021.

“He has distinguished himself in all three categories used to select Waubonsee’s Outstanding Faculty Member: instructional effectiveness, contributions to the college and commitment to ongoing professional development,” Diane Nyhammer, vice president of educational affairs, said about Voorhees’ recognition.

Voorhees earned a master’s in geology from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and worked for the oil and gas industry as an exploration geologist in the Gulf of Mexico before entering the academic world. He has been teaching classes in earth sciences, geology, astronomy, physical geography and sustainability at Waubonsee since 2002.

Voorhees said one of the reasons he loves teaching at a two-year college is that the emphasis is really on teaching. Although teachers can conduct research, it is not required at a two-year college, keeping the focus on students as the priority.

“We teach. That’s what we do. I love to teach,” he said. “We have the ability to reach out and touch a lot of students’ lives,” he said. “There’s a maximum of 35 to 40 students in a class. You get to know the students more deeply. I love interacting with the students.”

One of the accomplishments he has been most proud of during his teaching career has been his participation in a program called SAGE 2YC Project (Supporting and Advancing Geological Education in two-year colleges). He and the other professors across the country chosen for the program became change agents for how science is taught in two-year colleges.

Through the program, he was trained in approaches to learning that have been shown through research to lead to student success.

He tells his students he has two objectives for them: One, to teach them about earth science and geology, and two, to teach them how to be the best students they can be.

Voorhees said many students come to Waubonsee without the preparation and the study skills needed for the rigors of college. In addition, there is a lot of diversity in the student population, including age, intellectual ability, economics, etc. Each person comes with their own unique learning abilities and challenges.

He said using different teaching methodologies and techniques both in and out of the classroom increases the likelihood that students will find the experiences that meet their own specific learning needs.

His involvement in professional organizations throughout his career has given him the opportunity to meet other geoscience faculty and professionals, leading to service opportunities in the broader educational world. For example, he served as president of GEO 2YC, the first professional organization for geology teachers at two-year colleges.

These experiences, in turn, have brought benefits back to his students at Waubonsee, as well as other faculty members, he said.

His involvement with the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology led to Waubonsee becoming an educational affiliate and the recipient of a seismometer, an instrument that records earthquakes around the world. The instrument records between 90 and 120 earthquakes a year.

Voorhees said another advantage of teaching at a two-year college is it has allowed him the opportunity to get to know his students more deeply in the smaller classrooms of a community college and to potentially have a bigger impact on their lives and careers.

One of his students, Caroline Amelise, was able to use the data from the seismometer in a student-designed honors research project for which she won an award in a STEM competition, the first professional recognition of many in her career.

“He was there from the start,” Amelise said. “He believed in me more than I believed in myself. He presented me with opportunities I didn’t even know existed.”

Voorhees has shared his passion for earth sciences with the community through a series of presentations called Asset Earth. Beginning in 2006, Voorhees identified two to four scientific experts each year to introduce scientific ideas and concepts, such as earthquakes, climate change, sustainability and more. To date, there have been 47 presentations, each attended by 90 to 300 people. The majority of the presentations still are available at mymedia.waubonsee.edu.

“Outside of the classroom, I have been active in bringing many resources to my students, fellow faculty and staff and the Waubonsee community. These resources include a student group, research opportunities, scholarships, a lecture series and STEM-related resources to Waubonsee students,” he said.

Voorhees involved the community in a science project in 2005 by coordinating a summer-long archaeological dig at Phillips Park to recover what was thought to be a mastodon skull or skeleton left after the 1930′s Civil Works Administration project. Although the rumored mastodon bones were not found, Voorhees discovered a tremendous interest of nonscientists to participate in science.

During the four months, they trained more than 200 volunteer diggers, taught 15 students taking an earth sciences special topics class and engaged countless daily visitors to the dig site. Educational lessons from this project continue today, with Voorhees making available some of the material gathered in the dig to teachers of students in grades seven to 14, with instructions and background information on its use and importance.

“It’s a way for students across the country to participate in an authentic research opportunity in their classrooms and, hopefully, have an exciting moment of discovery,” Voorhees said.