For James Kabrhel, helping his students fall in love with science, in a world that is increasingly anti-science, or accepting of pseudoscience, is one of the joys of his job.
As a teacher of General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry at UW-Green Bay, Sheboygan Campus, Kabrhel uses current events and items in the news to make subjects that can be both boring and overwhelming, interesting and appealing.
Kabrhel’s ongoing commitment to helping students understand the difference between science and pseudoscience, as well as his ability to educate undergraduate students is what compelled Gregory Davis, former UW-Green Bay provost to nominate Kabrhel for the 2019 Alliant Energy Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award. Kabrhel was presented with the award, Friday, October 25 at the Alliant Energy Awards Ceremony, in Madison.
“From a personal perspective, his name came to light soon after we were aware that the Sheboygan campus was to become part of UW-Green Bay,” Davis said in his nomination letter. “In the intervening time—roughly a year and a half— I have heard many exceedingly strong comments as to his ability and dedication to the education of undergraduate students. It is so clear from student comments that James ability in this realm is atypical—in the good way! I am also delighted to see the commitment that James has made to providing students with guidance in understanding the difference between science and pseudoscience.”
Given each year to a teacher who personifies dedication, the Underkofler Excellence in Teaching Award is an endowed award from Alliant Energy and is awarded to three teachers each year within the University of Wisconsin System from the Madison, Platteville, Baraboo, Fond du Lac, Richland, Rock or Sheboygan campuses. The award committee looks for teachers who not only communicate their subject matter effectively, but also inspire in their students an enthusiasm for learning.
Kabrhel said that he enjoys starting college students on their scientific career.
“I noticed my students had a very high stress level,” he said. “It seemed like they were stressed out all the time. I wanted to be able to give them a choice of assignments—to create a video or a podcast about a subject—that would let them have more control.”
Kabrhel’s classes incorporate current events and issues into the classroom discussion, and the assignments as well.
“More than a decade’s worth of teaching chemistry at the UW Colleges has provided me with many different perspectives on education and scientific understanding. The rise of the Internet and a vastly changed political climate has wrought a large increase in anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment,” Kabrhel said. “At the same time, we have made profound advancements in technology and medicines. At the intersection of these two aspects of society are students who are ready to learn. For those students, I have incorporated ways to deal with the aforementioned changes: discussion of how pseudoscience has pervaded our culture, and the use of different media in instruction and presentation of scientific concepts.”
For his students, the combining of media in instruction and focusing on current events makes science classes easier to digest.
“I had not anticipated becoming a Chemistry major, as I had a previous teacher who had not set a good impression of the field. Though my interest was piqued, I had lost my momentum within the subject. However, from the first day of general Chemistry with Dr. K, my faith had been restored,” said Sabrina Maric, one of Kabrhel’s students. “Pseudoscience is a topic that is regularly discussed in class. This is one of the ways that Dr. K is able to keep a bunch of tired college students awake at morning lectures. The conversations around this topic are not only enjoyable in the classroom, but they manage to establish critical thinking of the outside world.”
Maric said Kabrhel would insert current news articles about pseudoscience into lectures, and link them back to concepts already presented in class. In one example, she said the topic of discussion was Monsanto and the use of pesticides. Maric said Kabrhel went through what chemicals Monsanto used and at what dosages they were harmful to people at. Then, she said, he switched the conversation to organic farming and non-GMO food looking at the pseudoscience there while talking about concepts such as what does organic really mean?
“The connection between the topics discussed in class and current events allows for us as students to easily apply what we learn in the classroom to our daily lives, which is what Dr. K has established to be his ultimate goal in his courses and display his genuine interest for the subject,” Maric said.
His classes help students understand the greater picture, some students said.
In a recommendation letter, Lydia Luebke and her organic chemistry classmates said Kabrhel was committed to his students’ success.
“Dr. Kabrhel has always put his entire heart and work ethic into teaching his students. He always provides his students with the latest experiments and shows us how our chemistry coursework relates to industry, medicine, and research,” Luebke wrote. “Dr. Kabrhel has an even greater purpose as an educator; teaching his students about what the term ‘organic’ means in the public domain. He requires every student to submit a project pertaining to this idea in General Chemistry. In this project, students learn the importance of understanding marketing campaigns by capitalizing on consumers’ limited knowledge about the true meaning of organic, a compound containing carbon. By requiring his students to submit these paper/video projects, we begin to understand the complicated field of agriculture and how the field of chemistry has influenced agriculture over the last decades as farmers are faced with dwindling tillable land supply, greater production cost and increased demand.”
A graduate of Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Kabrhel earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 2006. He began working as a lecturer in chemistry in 2007 at UW-Sheboygan (now UW-Green Bay, Sheboygan Campus), before moving up to assistant professor and, in 2015, associate professor. In the fall of 2015, Kabrhel also served as the interim associate dean of academic affairs for the Sheboygan campus. In 2015, Kabrhel was awarded the Arthur M. Kaplan Award recognizing outstanding contributions to education by the faculty and academic staff of UW Colleges. And in 2018, he was nominated for the UW College Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in teaching.
Kabrhel also extends his love of science outside the classroom, often presenting lectures on pseudoscience in the classrooms of other professors. Kabrhel is also the organizer of Cool Chemistry shows which he does with his wife, Amy Kabrhel, a professor of chemistry at UW-Green Bay, Manitowoc Campus. In Cool Chemistry, the Kabrhels and students from his chemistry classes perform chemistry demonstrations for kids five and up every spring.
“His passion for teaching and science truly shines through in our annual Cool Chemistry shows. James is the organizer of this show, and coordinates his general Chemistry and Organic Chemistry students to select, practice, and perform chemistry demonstrations for an audience of up to 300 people each year,” said Karrie E. Rukamp, senior lecturer with the Department of Chemistry in the UW college system. “Additionally, James serves as the host and emcee for the event- in which capacity he explains all the science behind each of the experiments performed, in ways that anyone, from small child to adult, can easily understand.”
Kabrhel said he plans to spend the award money on attending chemistry and chemistry education conferences to learn more about the science he loves so much, as well as how to better teach it. The best parts of inserting current events into his lectures, he said, is finding out about the topics he covers.
“We may talk about any number of things—like gluten free diets, or the label chemical free, or about herbal supplements,” Kabrhel said. “The best part about talking about them in class is that I get to learn about these things too.”
Feature by freelance writer Liz Carey
Photos by Dan Moore, UW-Green Bay Office of Marketing and University Communication