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Oceans of Dedication: Natalie Whitcomb Receives Thelma Raley Endowed Teaching Chair Award

Monday, April 20, 2015

natalie whitcomb revThis is the second in a series of four Endowed Teaching Chair 2014 stories.

She makes scientific ideas leap off the page and come gloriously to life, both in her classroom and with exciting projects that extend way beyond. Firing up her students’ minds and hearts with the desire to learn, Professor Natalie Whitcomb’s passionate devotion and innovative approach to teaching has earned her the prestigious Thelma Raley Endowed Teaching Chair award for 2014.

In her six years at Polk State College, Natalie Whitcomb has dazzled students in her geology, oceanography, and environmental science classes by making science accessible and relevant to their lives. She is respected and loved by both her students and colleagues for her outstanding work and devotion at Polk State College and in the community.

In the classroom, her passion and enthusiasm for her subject is contagious. She is known for providing exciting and engaging lectures that stimulate students to explore new viewpoints. She creates a positive learning environment and shows immense respect and caring for her students.

Beyond the classroom, she is always on the lookout for new and exciting things that students can learn about. She has designed and helped to organize field study opportunities to locations within Polk County, the Everglades and the Bahamas.

“The subjects that I teach are very hands-on fields, and I believe that is a good way to teach these disciplines,” she said. “Students find meaning in local issues and settings. They draw upon their prior knowledge and experiences,” she added.

It’s this belief that drives her passionate commitment to service learning – known also as community-based learning – which provides students with hands-on experience, applying science to solve problems.

Her students’ projects include the cleanup of Lake Gem, the planting of rain gardens and a cooperative venture with the City of Winter Haven’s Natural Resource Management Division focusing upon local water resource issues.

“My students love the gardening project. Local scientists come and talk to them about water management and xeriscaping (the use of drought tolerant plants) and they become very excited about this,” said Whitcomb.

The community-based learning piques her students’ interest not only in the sciences, but in the local issues that affect them, and in ethical and civic responsibility. “The rain garden project grew out of my concern about freshwater resources both in Florida and globally. This is meaningful for my students because it could impact their quality of life in the future,” said Whitcomb.

Whitcomb has developed a community service learning-based Introduction to Environmental Sciences course with Dr. Logan Randolph, and has developed close relationships with the Department of Environmental Protection, The Mosaic Company, Mote Marine Laboratory, IFSAS and the Winter Haven City Natural Resource Division.

She has worked hard to ensure the quality of Earth Science and Oceanography courses, writing new laboratory exercises, developing new field trip offerings, and upgrading and organizing the Earth Science instructional materials. She has also recruited many new adjuncts to design hybrid and online courses, and was the first science faculty member at Polk State College to have an online course approved through Quality Matters, a national evaluation system for online education.

Natalie received her Bachelor’s degree in Geology from University of Mary Washington and Master’s degree in Geology from Duke University, and is currently working on her Doctorate in Education at Nova Southeastern University.  She began at Polk State as an adjunct professor and began teaching as a full-time faculty member in 2008.

Her career spans sixteen years of teaching, in addition to a career outside of academia where she worked as a professional geologist. She has also served on a variety of committees at Polk State and as an advisor to the Green Club. She also maintains membership in a variety of local and national professional societies.

“She’s passionate about what she does and she’s experienced. She not only brings us her strong educational background, but also her experience as a professional geologist,” said Polk State Winter Haven Science Department Chair Logan Randolph.

In 2013, Whitcomb received the 2013 Outstanding Educator Award from the Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies (GCAGS).The Southeastern Geological Society (SEGS) nominated her, saying she was “recognized by her college, students, community and geological society as an exceptional classroom teacher, as well as an enthusiastic and innovative educator.”

Whitcomb is using her endowed teaching award to build more ties with the City of Winter Haven Natural Resources Division. “I am using the funds to build rain gardens.  This semester, we are working on campus.  The next time I teach this class, I hope to begin working in downtown Winter Haven,” she said.

“I hope that my students leave my classes with an appreciation for the unique geology and environments in this part of Florida, and for the ways science can be used to improve peoples’ quality of life,” said Whitcomb.