With a deep passion for science and shaping the lives of learners, Heather Sklenicka serves as an instructor of chemistry at Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC), where students call her “Dr. S.” Admittedly, her first few years were rocky in learning how to teach material most effectively and finding her niche in secondary education. Fast-forward 20 years and she is using a blend of invaluable experiences, insights and innovations to create a supportive learning environment. Moreover, Sklenicka is tending the sparks and lighting the way for her students to become the scientists of tomorrow.
The heart of her calling
After graduating from Drake University as a chemistry major in 1998 and from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry in 2003, Sklenicka went to work at RCTC, the oldest public two-year college in Minnesota. “I was looking forward to working with students in small classes and having the ability to help them grow as scientists,” she says.
Over the years, her calling has become clearer, particularly after reading a book that said people can figure out their true passion based on what they played as a child. “We played school, and I was always the teacher,” she says. “In second grade, I first wanted to be a Solid Gold dancer, and at the end of the year, I wanted to cure cancer.”
Not understanding exactly why the shift happened, she began exploring what type of science fit best. “In my junior year of high school, I took chemistry, and within a week I knew that was it,” adds Sklenicka. “During my last year at Drake, I had the opportunity to fill in as a teaching assistant and enjoyed it so much. My mind was set on teaching at the college level.”
Digital tools plus novel ideas
“We still balance equations, assign stereochemistry and learn mechanisms of reactions, but we do it in a variety of environments and use technology,” says Sklenicka. From full online instruction in 2020 to a hybrid format for many classes currently, students can learn online on their own time and go to the lab for the full, in-person experience. The student-friendly format increases access for those who are employed full-time, have families or live farther away.
According to Sklenicka, electronic tools for teaching have evolved at an impressive rate. Today students can receive immediate feedback on online homework, no matter what time of the day they work on it. Apps allow for quizzing in the classroom and for practicing tough concepts. A laboratory camera allows students to take photos of their experiments, which they can include in their lab reports. And instead of taking notes, students can take a photo of information on the board for later reference. “I embrace these new tools and help the students learn how to best use them to improve the quality and efficiency of their work,” says adds.
“Another fundamental change in my teaching started after a professional development speaker categorized content as ‘need to know,’ ‘nice to know’ and ‘nuts to know,’” she says. “I’ve been continuously weeding through and streamlining content.”
Implementing independent research
Sklenicka has mentored 48 students for 75 semesters of research since 2008. She innovates by thinking creatively, and about three years into her career, she figured out how to bring research into the teaching laboratory. Typically, students do a lab once and never see it again, but by using the lab in another way, she determined it could be optimized during off times as part of an independent study course.
“Coming from graduate school, research had to be novel and groundbreaking if you were going to earn the next grant and publication. I had to realize that the key skills you learn by doing independent research are not based on what the project is,” says Sklenicka. “You need to learn how to think about and plan experiments, discuss your project with a research advisor, keep good notes of what you do and the results, learn how to learn as much as possible from failed experiments and how to communicate your research to a variety of audiences.”
She requires her research students to contact their transfer institutions to inquire about lab availability the following year. In addition, she encourages them to present their work at local, state or national conferences. To date, RCTC students have presented 57 oral or poster presentations.
Sklenicka added research experiences to standard coursework at RCTC, because it teaches basic life skills. Eventually some students may realize it is not for them, and then they can focus on other aspects of science.
Recognizing the needs of today and tomorrow
Sklenicka’s involvement in area organizations allows her to spark other interests while serving the needs of the broader community. This includes teaching fitness classes at the Rochester Athletic Club and serving on the board of directors for Southeastern Minnesota Youth Orchestras. She plays bass clarinet for the Rochester Community Band and Rochester Pops Orchestra and teaches a dance class at PossAbilities. She also acts as a dungeon master each month for D&D (dungeons and dragons) night at Chaotic Good Brewing.
College classes continue to evolve to meet the needs of the whole student—beyond academics and within the community. For example, casual conversations during lab sessions make it possible to learn more about their mental health or needs related to nutrition or housing. “We have a fabulous team of caring staff, administration and fellow faculty,” says Sklenicka. “They ensure students are at peak performance when they open an online class or step into our classroom.”
Sklenicka believes artificial intelligence writing tools will shape the classroom going forward and increase the efficiency of science. “Teaching is an art form that requires creativity, innovation and great communication skills on a daily basis,” she says.
The chemistry is crystal clear. Heather Sklenicka’s innovative teaching is powered by her dedication to students and an ever-advancing formula for their success, which fuel the fire when she sees a spark—and has the right environment to flame it. ::
“Dr. S is a kind teacher which makes this class bearable, and her lectures are insightful.”
“Dr. Sklenicka cares about her students. She’s good at explaining the concepts needed for the class. She does go above and beyond what is required of her so that students learn and get the best experience.”
“Dr. S is very passionate about chemistry!”
“Dr. S has an intimate understanding of the subject matter she teaches. When we work on assignments in class in groups, she’ll make herself available to all groups to offer help when needed. She is enthusiastic and clearly cares about us students!”
“I love Dr. S. I would take every class from her if I could. She genuinely cares about organic chemistry and her students.”
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