March 27, 2013
By Barbara Baker, Director of Marketing Services
Dave Coles is being honored as the 2013 Faculty of the Year Award winner at Northeastern Junior College. He’s been teaching science related classes since 1993. (Courtesy Photo)
Dave Coles has days when he longs for the solitude that comes with being a field geologist. He could, after all, be back in Maine somewhere working for various companies exploring for copper-lead-zinc massive sulfide deposits. Or, he could be hunting for gold deposits in the Western United States. He knows all about this stuff and these kinds of jobs pay pretty well. But instead, he chooses to teach. “I think I am being what I want to be right now,” Coles says, responding to the question of what would he be if he could be anything he wanted to be.
And, Coles is good at what he does. So good in fact that he has been named the Faculty of the Year for 2013 at Northeastern Junior College.
Coles and his wife, Dr. Shelby Nichols, arrived at Northeastern in 1993. Dr. Nichols had been hired full-time to teach chemistry on campus and Dave came along with her. Soon he found himself working as an adjunct faculty member teaching Western Civilization I and II and Geography 105.
“It wasn’t long until I asked if I could introduce the students here to astronomy and I started teaching the 101 and 102 classes,” Coles remembers, noting that astronomy is one of his greatest loves.
Three years later, Coles was named a full-time faculty member and was teaching a full load of classes including Astronomy, Chemistry 107, and Western Civilization. When Norm Berry retired, Coles took on the job of teaching Physical Geology and Historical Geology, but gave up Western Civilization. Over the years his course load has shifted some. He currently teaches astronomy, chemistry, environmental science and geology.
“My first experience with higher education was at Berkshire Community College at Pittsfield, Massachusetts where I earned an associate’s degree,” says Coles, proud of the fact that he is a product of a two-year school. “ I transferred from there to the University of Maine at Orono where I earned a bachelor’s of art degree in geology. I remained in Maine working for various companies exploring for copper-lead-zinc massive sulfide deposits until coming to Colorado to attend Colorado State University for graduate studies. “ He completed his master’s degree and actually worked in the field as a geologist until he moved to Sterling.
While Coles didn’t really set out planning to teach, he has found a true passion in helping students develop their skills. In addition to the classes he teaches, he also sponsors the Math and Science Club and coordinates the college’s annual star parties. He also leads some camping, hiking and caving adventures for the college students. He is very community oriented and helps run the annual food drive activities on campus every year at Halloween. His club has helped do highway clean-up and always helps each year with the regional science fair and contests that take place at Northeastern.
Cole’s wild salt and pepper hair and scraggly beard have some students thinking he’s just an old hippie. Fact is, he’s a brilliant teacher and a lover of the sciences. Under his un-kept hairdo is a wonderful sense of humor and the mind of a genius who loves to share what he knows with others.
“I like working with the students and helping them develop the skills that they will need to survive, and hopefully flourish, as they work to obtain their bachelor’s degree and beyond,” Coles says. In other words, he cares.
“Most rewarding is seeing my students achieve their associate’s degree. You have to care about your students and their success. Regardless of what training you have, or what instructional activities you may dream up, they are all for naught if you don’t care.”
Coles considers former NJC math guru Clay Prall to be his best mentor. Prall, who taught at NJC for more than three decades, is beloved by most everyone who had him as a math teacher. “He has been a wonderful mentor for me. As much as possible I try to follow his example,” Coles said.
Over the years, this ‘mad’ scientist has seen great changes in the learning environment. “What has changed is the availability of learning materials, “ he notes. “Students today have a tremendous number of learning resources, videos, practice quizzes providing feedback, presentation software, 24-7 access to class materials, even on-line experts who will answer questions, largely as a result of the internet. None of this was so easily available when I first started teaching. Even with all of these new resources, direct interaction between the teacher and student seems to still be one of the strongest learning tools.”
When asked what could be said about him that might surprise his co-workers, his community and his students, Coles offered this. “As a student at Berkshire Community College I enjoyed de-stressing by charging up and down the hills and through the ginormous mud puddles of the western Massachusetts’ forests on a 250 cc dirt bike.”
He puts himself into his projects, whether it be planning a star party, a test for his geology class, or spending time with his wife and two children. Coles has a great life philosophy. “I believe that once you find what you want to do, that you do it well.”
Coles was honored by the college during it’s Spring Semester in-service and has since been recognized with a group of his peers from the other 12 community college across the state during a special ceremony held in Denver.