For CSM Professor Tom Russ, Creating a Great Outdoors Involves Developing Great Minds

CSM Biology Professor Tom Russ is the most recent recipient of the College of Southern Maryland’s Faculty Excellence Award. While Russ’ passion has been played out in a lifelong career in environmentalism

Students enrolled in College of Southern Maryland Professor’s Thomas Russ’ Environmental Technology classes may start off with an ideal such as wanting to save polar bears, but by the time they finish their studies, they have learned more than the ecological issues surrounding the Arctic inhabitants. Rather in the process they critically analyze how the principle of rescuing the endangered species stands up to economic constraints, political priorities and technological realities.

“At the end of the day, your passion plays out in a real-world context. So it is important for students to analyze and explain environmental concepts within the larger background,” said Russ, this year’s recipient of CSM’s Faculty Excellence Award.

While Russ’s passion has been played out in a lifelong career in environmentalism, it evolved into teaching in 1994, with an adjunct faculty position at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). In 2000, he started teaching full time with CSM’s Biological and Physical Sciences division.

“(Russ) has a unique perspective on teaching that is very hands-on,” said Biology Professor Kathleen P. Lauber, who nominated Russ for the award. “He actually has students work on projects that they might be involved with in the work-a-day world of environmental science. And the majority of his testing mechanisms require the student to critically think and write out their responses. This is an uncommon practice in most classes where testing is completed on Scantrons.”

Assignments in Russ’ classes involve more than just reading and regurgitating information about something like the BP oil spill. Instead, students must work their minds through understanding the science behind the spill, finding potential engineering solutions to crisis, determining the types of the technology that can fix the problem and contemplating how the spill occurred in the first place.

Russ said he wants students to deeply examine what an object lesson is about. “There would be no wells in the Gulf if there was not a ready, hungry and willing customer for the product. BP will take the hit, but as POGO (the comic strip) says, ‘we have met the enemy and it is us,’” he said.

Former student Stacie Bender described that in Russ’ class, she not only learned the textbook objectives of biogeochemical cycling, the conservation of matter and pollution control, but also synthesized the knowledge for her career as an engineer.

“I've had other instructors who were content to have students memorize material, but who really learns anything that way? Analyzing a problem, suggesting a solution (or multiple solutions with different costs and benefits), and supporting that solution with solid, convincing arguments are all much more important skills in both the academic and employment arenas than straight-up memorization,” said Bender, a U.S. Department of Commerce employee who is now pursuing a master’s degree in Civil Engineering/Water Resources at the University of Maryland. “One of the main themes of his classes was critical thinking (and, in turn, using critical thinking in conjunction with independent research skills). His classes helped me to brush up on those skills before I enrolled in graduate school.”

Before student Timothy Burkhardt took Russ’ class in the fall of 2008, he couldn’t distinguish between the hard science and the strong words of conservation activists. By the end of the semester, his outlook changed. “Professor Russ was exceptional at explaining what the issues were, why they were relevant to my life, and what changes I could make in my lifestyle to become a less wasteful person,” said Burkhardt. “He managed to express concern for the planet and convey a need for environmental regulations without resorting to scare tactics or extreme rhetoric.”

Burkhardt also learned that there was an “ecological balance” between the conservation movement and industry.

“(Professor Russ) was careful to keep everything in perspective, reminding the class that our economy is important as well, encouraging the class to attempt to find solutions that were mutually beneficial to the planet and to industry,” said Burkhardt. “He taught that even though there are many real reasons to be concerned for the state of the environment, there are signs of hope and that there is no reason to give up.”

Encouraging others to develop a balanced view about the environment is what brought Russ to teaching, he said. For decades, Russ worked as an environmental consultant in Maryland as well as throughout the Midwest and Mid Atlantic, while simultaneously raising a family and earning a bachelor’s degree from SUNY University at Buffalo and a master’s degree from Kutztown University. Yet, he found himself gravitating toward teaching.

 “I started liking my part-time (teaching) job better than my full-time job,” said Russ, who vowed to teach full time once his children finished college. “In environmental consulting, most clients are reluctant clients. But in the classroom, you have a chance to make a difference in some student’s life. In consulting or other professional work, you often don’t see the results of your work until years or decades later, but with teaching, you see the results of your efforts in three and half months.”  

Russ recalls one student, who was shy but smart, hesitated to take risks in terms of initiating projects or speaking up in class. But his class assignments requiring analytical reports, presentations, critical thinking and peer critiquing transformed her and by the end of several semesters, Russ found that “this once-shy student became assertive and powerful. It was a joy to see this.”

Once he settled into full-time teaching, Russ journeyed beyond the classroom by improving and developing the environmental management curriculum at CSM, preparing a white paper on campus sustainability and green buildings, and evaluating the La Plata Campus wastewater treatment plant. He spearheaded these projects while publishing two books on environmental issues and presenting at educational conferences throughout the nation, including at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University.

Outside of the college, Russ provides his skills and expertise to several community volunteer projects. Deanna Wheeler, a science teacher at J.C. Parks Elementary School in Indian Head, said Russ was instrumental in helping transform the school grounds into outdoor classrooms.  

“Russ used his background to incorporate green technology including hardscapes that minimize the amount of impervious spaces, materials that are recycled, and greenscapes to restore habitat and enhance the grounds with native plantings,” said Wheeler. “Tom's insight into the project helped us to see the possibilities that can happen at a school setting. He is creative and encourages people to see the possibilities instead of the obstacles.”

Russ’ accomplishments both inside and outside the college “environment” are what stood out to the Faculty Excellence in Teaching Committee, said committee member and CSM Math Professor Tom Seremet. Reviewing each nominee anonymously (the nominee’s name is taken out during the review process), the committee of 18 grades all applicants based on a five-criteria scoring method. The person with the highest score receives the award, which is announced during spring graduation.

Now in its 22nd year, the award recognizes teaching excellence based upon classroom teaching, institutional responsibility, curriculum development, professional development and community commitment.  

Fellow division colleague and award committee member Turner Coggins said, “Russ is an all-around great guy, with a great sense of humor.”

Russ lives in Charles County with his wife, who is an elementary school teacher. He has two grown daughters and a grandson. Within his even larger world, Russ enjoys learning the guitar, painting and “eating too much,” he said.

 “No one deserves an Excellence Award more than Tom Russ. He is a stand-up guy,” said Burkhardt, who once got a ride from Russ while stranded on the road. The journey has crystallized the former student’s zeal for the ecosystem as he is pursuing a Sustainable Forestry program at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.