By Meg Hibbert, Contributing Writer
(Published on April 15, 2021) Karen Hicks’ passion is to show students science can be cool. Her enthusiasm and expertise has earned her the coveted Chemistry Teacher of the Year from the Blue Ridge Chapter of the American Chemical Society. It’s actually the second time she has been chosen, with the first in 2008.
“It’s definitely an honor to be nominated. I love teaching science. It’s probably one of the coolest things,” said Hicks, who has taught at Glenvar High School for 15 years and in Roanoke County for a total of 23.
Hicks was notified of her award in March and will is scheduled to be recognized at the Roanoke County School Board meeting on April 22, she said.
Hicks explained she decided when she was student teaching that she wanted her future students to be able to enjoy the sciences.
“One of the things I tell my students early in the school year is ‘I have faith and confidence that you can do this,’ ” she said. “Chemistry is a tough course – a doable course – but tough. It is often the first time many students have to study, and many are intimidated by the material.”
She added that she holds them to high standards. “During class discussions or guided practice, I almost always ask a student why or how they got the answer they got – before I let them know whether the answer is correct or not. I want to understand the thought process they used to get to their answer. If their answer is incorrect, I want to determine where they went wrong in their thinking.”
Hicks continued, “Often, a student will be able to see their mistake and to correct their answer when I ask them to explain how they solved the problem. I feel that students learn best when they are teaching each other, so I usually have them work in small groups and to check their answers with another group, before checking the answer key.”
She admitted that because of COVID, this year has been a bit different. “My school does not have students working in groups, but we will return to this format as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Hicks said she wants students in her classes “ to see the connections between what we are learning and how science impacts them personally. There are so many important issues in the headlines today, and not just the COVID virus. Genetic engineering, stem cell research, nuclear energy, alternative fuels, and the environment are all topics that will impact their lives. Without understanding the science behind these issues, they cannot make informed decisions on these matters.”
In 2017, she was selected to attend an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) held during the summer at Virginia Tech. The RET focused on water quality issues. “I presented my research, ‘The Search for Microplastics in an Urban Stream,’ at the project forum at the end of the summer. Each time I participate in one of these experiences, I add to my knowledge of how chemistry is related to different fields of study and I share this information with my students,” she said.
In addition to teaching classes at Glenvar, Hicks has taught a section of chemistry each semester at Virginia Western Community College for the last nine years. Currently at Glenvar, she teaches college-bound, advanced, and AP/Dual Chemistry.
“Teaching at the college level allows me to see what topics are a struggle for college students,” she said. “I use this information to shape some of my high school lessons.”
She was head coach the Scholastic Bowl team at Glenvar for eight years and moved to an assistant position last year. “Our team has always been strong in the math and science components. I do find it hard to contain my excitement when the team gets those chemistry questions correct!”
Hicks explained she tries to share her love of learning and fascination with how science works with her students. “I share some of my life experiences – both science and non-science – to let them know that I have struggled with things and how I dealt with those struggles. I have used current events – both local (high school) and national – to ask my students how they feel about a topic.”
Her honor came with a $250 cash award and GHS got $100 for supplies for the science department.
She earned her Bachelors of Science from Roanoke College after an associate degree from VWCC, and then a Masters in Education from Radford University.
The past two years, maple trees on her family farm in Ironto were tapped providing sap for Glenvar students to cook into syrup. She also maintains beehives at her farm, collecting honey for the student-run G-Bees program at the high school.
In her leisure time, she likes to hike, bike and site and enjoy the views, Hicks said. She and her husband, Tim Hicks, have two boxers, Sam and Abby. When she is not working, she likes to be outdoors, spending time with her Tim, friends, and family including a grown son who is a Navy aviator out of Virginia Beach, daughter Rikki Heard and three grandchildren “to spoil and teach about the coolness of science.”