Robert Chaney - Acceptance Speech

2013 Outstanding Community Colleges Professor of the Year
Robert Chaney
Professor of Mathematics
Sinclair Community College

Hello, and thank you so much for having me here today.

I want to thank Andy Heeze for his kind introduction, and I want to thank the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for this very great honor.

An award like this is a reflection of many supportive people who have influenced me throughout my life. I am a third-generation teacher. Both my grandmother, Janet Loudner, and mother, Elizabeth Chaney, were teachers. I know if they were still living, they would be very proud today.

As a teenager in high school, I would never have believed I might someday become a math professor—let alone win an award such as this. My guidance counselor warned me to avoid algebra, proclaiming it “too hard” for me. Nevertheless, I took that first algebra course and survived it—through hard work coupled with an intimidating fear I would not succeed. Interestingly, that first course turned out to be the hardest math course I ever took, and math seemed to “click” for me from then on.

I went on to study math at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and there Professor Robert Smith took a special interest in me and shared his infectious fire and passion for math, which further influenced my career path, and I ended up pursuing a doctorate in math.

When I began teaching as a graduate student, I’m sure I was not a contender for any teaching awards. I was focused on my own mathematical interests in set theoretic topology and on my own career goals instead of on meeting the needs of my students. In a typical lecture, I endeavored to be as clever as possible in my presentation of the material without showing enough concern for whether students were engaged in learning or connecting with the material.

In 1983, though my academic life was right on track, I had a series of personal discouragements that brought me to a point in my life where I called out to God for help and I began a relationship with Jesus Christ. My life was suddenly transformed with a new outlook, and I began doubting the importance of my former life goals. Instead of focusing only on mathematic achievements, I suddenly felt directed toward working to make a difference in the lives of others.

Much to the shock of my family and friends, I left the university without completing my doctoral degree and began working in a ministry with the developmentally disabled. I found this job rewarding in ways I had never experienced in the academic world. I began to appreciate the value in every person, regardless of the level of his or her abilities, and found joy in helping individuals reach their full potential.

After a few years, I got married, and moved to Dayton, Ohio. I began to pray for a new opportunity to serve people. Among other things, I considered becoming a missionary in Haiti, working with the Salvation Army, or working in a home for troubled youth. Nothing seemed quite right. In the back of my mind, I sometimes wondered what the purpose had been for all those years of studying math, but I felt so fulfilled in service-type ministry that I thought math would probably never resurface.

Then, someone suggested I consider applying to a college I was not familiar with—Sinclair Community College. In researching this opportunity, I became aware of a mission statement that has been in effect since Sinclair was founded in 1889, which is “find the need and endeavor to meet it.”

I felt directed to apply at Sinclair, and thankfully, I was hired. I had thought it necessary to make a life choice between working in mathematics and working in ministry to people, but now I saw it was no longer necessary to choose one or the other, because at Sinclair, I was able to serve people through the avenue of mathematics. All the seemingly disparate pieces of my life came together, and working at Sinclair became my “dream job”.

As a faculty member at Sinclair, I felt called to exhibit and expect academic excellence while finding and meeting the needs of students at their individual levels. Sinclair promotes innovation with the goal of engaging students in the subject matter so they will persevere and find success.

Sinclair encourages collaboration between disciplines—to provide a more seamless transition for students from one course to the next and one department to another.

I have benefitted greatly from this collaborative spirit. Together with my colleague Fred Thomas in the physics department, and aided by a grant from the National Science Foundation, we’ve co-created a calculator-controlled robot, which brings together math, physics and engineering to aid students in learning algebraic functions. Students are challenged to make the robot navigate a maze, collect data and perform various tasks.

Through hands-on, real-world activities such as this which contextualize math, students learn to develop algebraic-thinking skills that extend beyond the classroom. This “function thinking” in a specific, physical context helps build a strong foundation for students’ general understanding of algebra. They learn to think mathematically when faced with real problems—to see math as a tool that will help prepare them for careers and higher learning.

I want to thank Sinclair and all my colleagues during the past 24 years, including President Johnson and the team here with him today, for the contributions they have made in making Sinclair such a wonderful place to work.

I also want to thank my wife Maida and my other friends and family members for their continued support throughout my life, and I thank God for His ongoing help and continued direction.