Hicks hooks students with quirky personality

There’s a reason the desert is cold at night and it has to do with the molecule planted in Vern Hicks’ bushy white beard. Professor Diana McGill might clarify but she’s sprawled across a table pretending to be an unbreakable molecule that refuses to share a phosphate.

Hicks, a chemistry professor at Northern Kentucky University, is celebrated for his animated teaching style that brings humor to the classroom and sparks a driving curiosity to learn in students.

“He blows the lids off film canisters by mixing things in them,” said Sarah Nelson, who graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s in chemistry. “He gets so excited; you can tell he genuinely loves chemistry.”

Hicks was Nelson’s first chemistry instructor. “He’s one reason I chose chemistry,” Nelson said.

McGill, chair of the Chemistry Department, first learned from Hicks as his student in the 1980s. Now she finds herself mimicking Hicks’ spirited teaching skills as a professor.

Nominated by NKU’s Chemistry Department, Hicks won the 2008 Cincinnati Chemist of the Year Award from the American Chemical Society. Recently NKU honored Hicks with a “Spark” Award for the inspirational role he plays in the lives of students and colleagues.

After 35 years as NKU’s only physical chemistry professor, Hicks plans to retire at the end of this school year.

Hicks and McGill talked with The Northerner about teaching, learning and how to imitate molecules.

Dr. McGill, is Dr. Hicks a legend?

McGill: Absolutely. Generations of students will be saddened when he’s not here. Students who didn’t get a chance to take him say, “Could you ask him to stay one more year?” He is a legend to people who have taken physical chemistry since 1972. Ask any chemistry teacher in the area, they all know Vern.

What is your favorite age to teach?

Hicks: All ages. I go talk to the day care centers, elementary, all the way up through high school. I just like seeing kids excited at science. What greater joy can one have in life than to see the sparks in their eyes?

McGill: On science day, little kids are running around to different science rooms set up. In the hallways, they’ll tell each other, “You have to go downstairs! There’s this guy with a beard! It’s the best room of any of them!”

Vern, you have an impact on them that I don’t even think you realize.

Hicks: It’s really fun, I have to say. It’s really fun.

McGill: And you’re teaching eight-year-olds, 10-year-olds.

There’s no way they can understand the depth of the concepts but they get excited because of your level of excitement.

Hicks: You can’t fool kids. Older people can pretend they enjoy things. But kids can’t. You can tell if they’re interested. You can see the same thing in college students.

Did you have a teacher who influenced you?

Hicks: My physical chemistry teacher. He would lay out things very precisely. You spent all your time writing. You maybe couldn’t even follow anything he said. But afterwards, when you looked at your notes, it made perfect sense.

McGill: I remember being Vern’s student, writing as fast as humanly possible equations, Greek letters, integrals in that old room where the chalk board went from ceiling to floor, and he would fill it from ceiling to floor. He would be lying on the floor, still writing.

Hicks: Yep, that’s true.

McGill: You would. You would be lying on the floor.

Hicks: And there was an outlet in the board.

McGill: He would write around the outlet and we would frantically try to write these Greek letters and just think “oh my gosh.”

But your notes would be so organized that it made sense later as you were working the problem. So, Vern, you are exactly like your mentor.

In my teaching, I must’ve taken the concept of putting the notes in very clear, outline order from Hicks without knowing I did until this moment.

Hicks: Another thing I enjoy doing is demonstrations. Some people get turned on by seeing chemistry in action. Particularly if you can show it with things that are familiar to them so they can see it around them. Or if you can show things they may never have thought of before.

In one demonstration, you put a molecule in your beard.

Hicks: I’ll show you.

(He shows how he uses three balls on a string to pose as molecules. He lodges one ball in his beard. On either side of his head, he waves the other balls back and forth, one represents a nitrogen molecule and the other oxygen. The nitrogen molecule zips along with the oxygen ball, past the wagging bearded molecule while Hicks explains how changing vibrations, infrared, the greenhouse effect and positive and negative charges in the molecules make the desert cold at night.)

You know why the sky is blue, don’t you?

Hicks: I know exactly why the sky is blue! Small particles scatter light with a short wavelength more than light with a longer wavelength. Blue has a shorter wavelength. Red has a longer wavelength. When light passes overhead, the blue wavelengths get scattered to you. That’s what you see. That’s why the sky is blue, because of scattered light.

That’s what you have to get kids to see. The world around them can be understood. Through science you can understand so many things you may just think there’s no logical explanation for. But in most cases, there is a logical explanation.

McGill, you also, I understand, do a lot of physical demonstrations. I’ve heard about you lying on a table.

McGill: I was trying to be the molecule. So if I’m a molecule with three groups (she lays on the floor, one knee in the air far away from the arm stretched over her head), I say, how is this group (her hand) going to pass its phosphate to this group (the knee). I’m the molecule, and I can’t bend. And you can’t break me.

The other thing Vern taught me is not to worry about looking like a fool in class.

How do the students respond to demonstrations?

Hicks: They think it’s funny, but it gets the point across.

McGill: I knew you influenced me to love psychical chemistry, but what I didn’t know is how much your teaching style influenced how I would go about my teaching.

Hicks: It could’ve been other sources.

McGill: But what you’re saying with the way you tried to teach us is the way I’m trying to teach my students without knowing I was mimicking you.

What’s been an amazing moment for you?

Hicks: One great thing was when some department members recommended me for chemist of the year. These are young people that had just come in. They’re going to take this department far farther than I was able. It’s nice to see that you’re respected by people you think are going to surpass anything you’ve done.

What are some amazing moments in teaching?

Hicks: When somebody is struggling with something, it’s a great feeling when they understand it. When that light hits sometimes you can even see it. Their eyes almost glow.

McGill: The joy you see on a student’s face is worth more than what you get in a paycheck.

Hicks: I just got an e-mail from a former student who’s doing really well. He was one you could see light up. The biggest reward is seeing students you had go on and do well later. I mean, that’s why you teach.

Vern, you never come across as arrogant and all-knowing even though the students think you’re the most intelligent person on the planet.

Hicks: I loved when my son came here. I think it was a little hard for him so he never broadcast that he was my son. Someone found out and said his father is very intelligent. And he said, “Well, he lets down at home.”

It helps if you can poke fun at yourself. It helps to make yourself a little quirky.

What element from the periodic table would you be?

Hicks: Promethium. It’s named after Prometheus who brought fire to people on the earth. After that he was imprisoned on a rock and a
crow ate out his liver every day. But it would grow back at night.

McGill: Vern, I was sure you would pick hydrogen because you did your graduate research on hydrogen.

Vern: But I just like promethium. I like the story of Prometheus. I like how he brought fire to the people.