Carrying a globe around his classroom, Central Michigan University geography professor Mark Francek stops to spin it on the tip of his finger. Later, he climbs onto a table so every awe-struck student in the class can see a demonstration he has planned.
Unconventional, maybe, but it is this dedication to college students and unabashed passion for science that earned Francek the 2016 Michigan College Science Teacher of the Year.
“I believe in seizing every opportunity as a teachable moment,” Francek said. “Students want interaction. They don’t want to know how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Francek, who was a first-generation college student, believes the opportunity to learn is one of the greatest gifts students have. He has created his own teaching philosophy based on more than 27 years of experience, including teaching at a maximum security prison. The model he developed – community, accountability and relevance, or CAR – was designed to foster effective instruction while creating relationships. His philosophy
was included on an education blog at Stanford University.
One of the ways he makes lessons relevant is by using concepts that relate to most students to look for opportunities to get them outside the classroom. Weather is one of Francek’s favorite subjects to teach for this reason. Students all feel the effects of the weather – from fashion majors to meteorology majors, he says.
“Some concepts are sterile, so I try to incorporate mini field trips where we can go outside and observe clouds, for example,” he said. “I’m always trying to link what the book says to the real world and let students apply it in a hands-on way so it really sticks.”
Beyond classroom field trips, Francek uses another mode of transportation to connect with students: a bicycle. He can be seen pedaling around CMU’s campus biking to and from work each day, year round. Francek has taken classes on bikes across upstate New York, Shenandoah National Park, Beaver Island and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and, in 2015, he and two CMU students embarked on a nine-week, 4,295 mile trip across the United States. With CAR in mind, the trio also raised money for multiple sclerosis research along the way.
“In my experience, if you want to look at weather, stars, botany or geology there’s no better way,” Francek said. “At the end of every day, we would sit down and talk about what we saw and learn about it.”
Michigan Science Teachers Association will present the teaching award to Francek in March. Winners are selected for “using or modeling best practices, inspiring students, demonstrating innovative teaching strategies, being an excellent role model for students and other teachers, demonstrating leadership, and exhibiting a passion for science and for teaching.”
CMU alumna and former student of Francek’s, Samantha Dieck, says she can’t remember a day when he wasn't full of energy and purpose for his students.
“Early on, I remember thinking ‘Now this is a man who loves to teach’,” said Dieck, now a science teacher in Big Rapids. “That is what really inspires me about Mark, he is such a positive person and can make the most mundane of science topics exciting with his passion.”
Francek’s out-of-the-ordinary approach and infectious love of science make him an important fixture in the
College of Science and Engineering. There is a special kind of student you can’t find anywhere but CMU, he says. He finds that students are friendly, welcoming and always wearing a smile, and he believes students at CMU truly value education.
“What CMU has offered me are students that want to learn if you fire them up and have high expectations for them,” he said. “Those are the kind of students I want to teach.”