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A classroom that works

By Tracey Bentley, ECS
April 25, 2007


Tom March, professor of Agricultural Mechanization. Lisa Nugent Photo

He’s one part I.M. Pei, one part Bob the Builder, and a dash Nick Adams. Tom March would be the perfect host for a PBS show called “How to do all the things you ever really need to do in life.” Yet it’s no wonder PBS hasn’t discovered him yet; modesty runs deep at the Thompson School of Applied Science (TSAS), where some of the world’s best teachers hide out in a modern-day Galt’s Gulch.

March’s field, agricultural mechanization, might be more aptly named “incredibly useful things you didn’t know,” or something like that. March serves up knowledge that TSAS students need as they complete their individual two-year programs. Many baccalaureate students also take his courses to put an applied spin on their own studies. March’s technical computer literacy course prepares students for integrating AutoCAD and other software in fields such as construction management, surveying, and architecture. His courses on electricity, building construction, welding, and internal combustion engines combine university-level theory with practical, hands-on instruction. Students learn literally through their fingertips, feeling the heat and hum of engines. This is knowledge that sticks.

Over the years, March has tweaked his teaching approach to include lectures, labs, demonstrations, and handouts. “The handouts are awesome,” notes one of his students. These handouts are highly customized “textbooks” that accompany his lectures and slide shows. Even March admits that these virtual field trips have become extremely effective learning tools. They’re loaded with real-world photographs that pack a pedagogical punch.

Many of the photographs come from March’s own projects. In class, students relive his undertakings through the digital slides capturing important moments. For example, one series records March’s work designing and building two cottages and a custom boathouse on his lakefront property in New York. Another unveils his work on an elevator to scale the 30-foot cliff between cottage and beach. When his mother-in-law found herself in a wheelchair, he built the elevator so she could still enjoy the sand between her toes. Don’t try Googling “elevator kit.” He made it from scratch, spending nearly 300 “after-hours” designing it in AutoCAD, then countless nights and weekends fabricating and welding the components.

At the west end of Putnam Hall, March’s classroom is unlike any other at UNH. Flooded with natural light, the large, workshop-style space features electrical booths, welding benches, giant equipment cabinets, and more, all on a concrete floor.

According to him, it’s a classroom that really works. It should. He designed and built it himself when he arrived at the Thompson School in 1977, spending his off-hours measuring, hammering, and, two years later, finishing the space. Today, it’s so clean and tidy that the school’s Stacey’s Café could set up its buffet there at a moment’s notice.

Was all the work worth it? “Absolutely,” he says. “It’s an investment in my teaching and in what is going to happen in the classroom.”

What happens in the classroom is profound. “If it wasn’t for [March’s] encouragement last year, I would not be here now,” recalls one student. Another simply says, “He’s wicked smart.” And one student went as far to say, he’s “Superman when it comes to ANYTHING!”

Super man and super busy, that’s for certain. Still, March finds time to reel in enough lake trout to enjoy on the grill or freeze for winter meals and to explore the vast Finger Lakes region by boat. More than once he’s made the two-state, two-nation, multiday trek from Cayuga Lake and back via the interconnected waterways of New York, Ontario, Quebec, and Vermont.

Does he ever sit still? On occasion, you’ll find Tom March at the end of the dock, enjoying a glass of Finger Lakes wine with his wife Priscilla, his children, or his violin virtuoso neighbor, watching the Cayuga sunset.

He says there could not be “a more perfect job or lifestyle than what I’ve had here for so long.”


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