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Former biology major Michael Floreck ’95 shares the importance of his liberal-arts experiences as the agriculture and science supervisor for Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg, Pa. With his interdisciplinary approach, students are encouraged to stretch beyond their comfort zones and experience diverse coursework. To that end, he is developing a website called STEAMconnect, which seeks to provide not only a place for students to publish their work on cross-disciplinary projects but also offers a way to engage students in a digital publishing environment.
Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?
I talk to students every week about how important a liberal-arts environment is in preparing them for 21st-century jobs. My favorite example is my wife, Colleen Roesener Floreck ’95, who graduated with the same degree as me but then pursued a master’s degree in cell and molecular biology. While she started in the lab at Hershey Medical Center applying her degree directly to the research field, she eventually parlayed this skill set into a technical sales job that allowed her to use her communication and organizational skills to do a job that requires much more than a technical pedigree. Three moves later, she is now the global director of digital marketing for Lonza, a Swiss contract manufacturer for the pharmaceutical industry.
Today’s high school graduates have spent four years being told how important communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity are, and I just don’t see a better way for them to develop these aptitudes than to do so in a liberal-arts program. As the K-12 supervisor of the science and agriculture programs for my school district, I often find myself sitting down with our best and brightest convincing them to spend their college years the way I did. Since their career aspirations will undoubtedly require them to spend additional years in a specialized graduate school program, why not spend four years expanding their worldview?
What was your favorite activity at Dickinson?
Throughout high school, I spent the majority of my time chasing a ranking on the tennis court, and, frankly, I missed out on a lot. I knew I wanted to play in college, but I also knew I wasn’t going to make a career out of it. My first year, I joined an already deep lineup on the men’s tennis team and helped them to an undefeated season and the MAC SW championship. I thrived in that environment, took my game and grades to a new level and was thrilled to find out years later that my own undefeated season helped pave the way for that group to be inducted into Dickinson’s Athletics Hall of Fame. Now as a parent of two talented athletes, I find myself sharing why I think that finding a strong Division III program at a college that offers the right mix of other opportunities is likely the best choice for most college athletes. I worked hard on and off the court, and the suffering was more than worth the rewards.
What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?
I had a busy schedule as a biology major who wanted to graduate with teacher certification, so my best opportunity to study abroad was a between-semester marine science program in San Salvador. That trip pulled together so many things for me and helped me to understand the value of experiential learning. From cave diving to snorkeling on a pristine reef, I saw some of the most amazing habitats imaginable. The high point, though, was when I found myself staring down at stromatolites in a lake that is one of the last places on earth that these ancient organisms continue to thrive.
How do you support Dickinson?
My wife and I have made some donations over the years, but I think I have contributed much more as an advocate for not only the benefits of a liberal-arts education to my students but more importantly as someone who feels very confident in speaking about my experience at Dickinson. I never miss the opportunity to speak about how my education contributed to my worldview as an outspoken social and environmental justice warrior.
How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?
I didn’t really think about being an educator until junior year of college when I determined that I loved learning about science more than I loved doing it. With that said, my Dickinson education gave me the leadership qualities necessary to lead—first from the middle and now as a school district administrator.
What does your current work entail?
I manage all aspects of the agriculture and science departments, from planning and administering a purchasing plan for three buildings to hiring and then nurturing the 42 faculty members I support. As in any job, there are plenty of tasks that must be done, but my employer gives me plenty of opportunities to be creative.
Throughout my career, I have devoted a lot of time to advising students about the nature of college programs related to health and science fields, as well as the graduate school programs that follow, and a common theme is always the need to stretch beyond their comfort zones and interact with practitioners. I believe that students who are interested in these fields often neglect both the diversity of courses that a liberal-arts education offers as well as hands-on, minds-on experiences. I am currently working on launching a website called STEAMconnect, which seeks to provide not only a place for students to publish their work on cross-disciplinary projects but also offers a way to engage students in an ePublishing environment. The premise is that an interest in or aptitude for science doesn’t mean that a person needs to work in a lab or hospital; instead, combining this with related skillsets will open a huge suite of possibilities for them.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Without a doubt, the toughest part of my job is striking a balance between the science we teach and the need to step carefully around the political “third rails” that exist in public education. When asked a question like, “Do you teach evolution as a theory or a fact?” my first impulse is to respond with the overwhelming information that I have at my disposal as an educator with over 20 years of experience. However, that experience, and the balance provided by my liberal-arts education, has caused me to take a more Socratic approach and first determine the root of the question itself. From there, I can more easily provide a response that is accurate but also sensitive to the audience in a way that more productively advances the vision of my department.
What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?
That’s a tough one, because I think my wife and I have had a great run through our careers, having children and now embarking on a college search for our daughter Grace while seeing her sister Lydia follow in her footsteps. I guess I would say that doing it all with her has allowed me to extend the four years we spent together in Carlisle to what has become a lifetime of learning and adventure with someone who truly understands the approach I take to living life from all angles.
If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?
Charles Darwin, for sure. I’d love to know how he resolved his faith with what has become not only the most influential theory in science but also a point of cognitive dissonance for so many.
You just built a time machine: where and when do you go?
I’d travel into the future to see if humans have found a way to coexist with our environment. Sustainability is so important to me, and it pains me to imagine a world where my grandchildren are repeating the same mistakes we have made.
If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?
I don’t think I would change much, but if I have to say something, I’d say that I should have turned my attention toward my future earlier and not wasted time dwelling on the past.
Published September 10, 2018