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Past Winners of the Teacher of the Week

Michael Hochella, Jr.


The Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER) recognizes Michael Hochella, Jr., professor of Geosciences, for his outstanding teaching of various Earth and environmental science subjects to scientists and engineers at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Over the years, Mike has taught resources geology, engineering geology, introduction to nanoscience, and mineralogy and crystallography at the undergraduate level with class sizes ranging from 25 to 200 students, and surface and interface science, nanoscience, and interdisciplinary science methods at the graduate level with class sizes ranging from 5 to 20 students. In all cases, Mike’s teaching methods emphasize a highly visual, fun (sometimes humorous), enthusiastic approach, while continually focusing on relevance specifically suited for each student demographic. He gets to know his students and insists on being called only by his first name. He always works from the more concrete to the more abstract, and the method emphasizes simplicity in the midst of complexity. Broad coverage is sacrificed for a better understanding of less material, and detail (although obviously often necessary) is stressed less than context and broader impacts. Finally, explanations of complex phenomena are carefully deconstructed into fundamental principles, and rebuilt one logical step at a time. The outcome of this method generally includes a very high attendance percentage, especially considering that there are never any obvious rewards or grade incentives to attend, a high level of understanding as clearly indicated by testing results, and teacher ratings that always range from 3.9 to 4.0 over the last decade, even for the largest classes.

Mike first taught at Virginia Tech in the fall of 1975 as a graduate student teaching assistant while obtaining his MS degree in geoscience. He later taught as a PhD candidate at Stanford University, and then from 1984 to 1992 as an assistant and associate professor at Stanford. He returned to Virginia Tech, which he refers to as his “academic home”, in 1992, and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses here ever since. Although he has won a number of research awards and medals from Virginia Tech, the state of Virginia, and professional academic societies both in the United States and abroad, he has never been formally recognized with a teaching honor or award. He actually prefers it this way, as he considers himself someone with definite natural teaching talents, but who has gained all of his technical teaching technique, methodology, and proven practices from those who are "true and outstanding teaching professionals” such as his wife, Dr. Barbara Bekken, a multiple-award winning teacher and program developer. Without such outstanding guidance, he insists that he would be much too “naïve” in his instructional practice to be genuinely effective in the classroom.
The following are direct quotes from writers on the Rate VT Teachers website, and many similar quotes can be found on the handwritten teaching evaluations turned in over the years:

“He has an incredible gift of being able to relate to his students.”

“By far the best teacher/professor I have EVER had.. for my entire education.”

“Overall.. my favorite class I've taken at Tech and by FAR my favorite professor. Tech is lucky to have him.”

“Mike is, without a doubt, the best science teacher that I have ever had.”


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