Retired Chemist Finds Next Career in Teaching

Rich Farris

Richard Farris, 2011-2012 Woodrow Wilson Ohio Teaching Fellow, found a passion for teaching while pursuing a degree in chemistry. After a career as a chemist, Farris found that he was in need of a change of pace. We talked with Richard to learn more about the opportunities the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship has afforded him and how the career change from chemist to teacher has changed his life.


Q: When did you become interested in the teaching profession and what is your academic background?

A: My interest in teaching began when I was teaching assistant while pursuing my MS degree in Chemistry at the University of Illinois. For three semesters, I taught multiple classes of freshman chemistry. Throughout my career as a research chemist, I had the opportunity to train many new hires and interns, which, in reality, is one-on-one teaching. When the opportunity to participate in the Woodrow Wilson Ohio Teaching Fellowship presented itself, it was an easy decision for me to make because I was looking for a different learning opportunity and challenge.


Q: How has the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship impacted your studies and career preparation?

A: The Woodrow Wilson Fellowship helped me transition to being a teacher in several important ways. First, it gave me an understanding and an appreciation of educational pedagogy and adolescent psychology that I needed in order to be successful. Second, it gave me exposure to students in real life situations from day one. This began with my participation in the summer camp for high school freshmen and was followed by my yearlong student teaching assignment. Lastly, it allowed me to make invaluable connections with my fellow cohort and staff at CECH. They often provide support in the form of ideas to approach teaching as well as mental support when I hit obstacles (which is frequently).


Q: What makes you passionate about science and being a teacher?

A: I had a long career as a scientist in the industry. As a scientist and a father, I understand the fact that critical thinking skills are vital, regardless of the career choices people make. I also feel that these skills are being lost on our youth today. As a result, I have a passion to help young people develop these skills. Separately, but equally important, the perceptions of scientist by students is often the stereotypical crazy haired person with a lab coat working alone in the lab. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I hope to expose my students to the range of possibilities in the STEM fields with the intention of encouraging more of them to follow a STEM career path.


Q: You used to be a chemist, what prompted your career change and what has that been like?

A:  As mentioned previously, I have always been interested in teaching and working with young people.  After a long career in industry, I had been thinking about a career change.  Coincidentally, my wife read an article in the local newspaper about the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship.  She wrote on the newspaper that this was my “next career” and left it out for me to see.  This was an obvious sign and the rest is history.  I still have the newspaper and her note.


Q: In what ways is teaching different and similar to being a scientist?

A: As a scientist, my success depended on my abilities to apply the scientific process. This included assessing information and defining the research problems to solve, setting objectives, creating hypotheses and test plans, conducting research, analyzing and drawing conclusion from the results and revising actions based on those conclusions. As a teacher, I find I use this all the time developing my course objectives and lesson plans for the year, the unit, or the day. Throughout the year, I am constantly collecting data on student progress, analyzing the results, and making adjustments.

The biggest difference I am adjusting to is the fact that as a scientist in the corporate world, everyone I worked with had a similar objective – how to make the company and themselves succeed at the same time. Everyone was self-motivated. As a teacher, I have had to accept the fact that self-motivation particularly in learning science, spans the range from unmotivated to highly motivated. This generally is driven by what the students are experiencing in their lives outside of the classroom. I am constantly reminded that success in teaching is measured one student and one day at a time. The key issue I am addressing over the summer is how to improve my lesson plans to increase engagement even among those students who may not be motivated about school and/or science.