Ken Hess, professor of chemistry, is the faculty mentor to Franklin & Marshall College’s first Science Posse. The Posse Foundation recruits high-performing students from underrepresented groups and steers them to institutions committed to undergraduate success. The 10 Posse scholars from Miami will study in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—and will be joined in the Class of 2016 by 11 Posse Scholars from New York City. Hess has been teaching at the College since 1987.
How did you find your way to F&M?
I grew up in Lancaster County, and my fraternal grandparents were Mennonites. I am a first-generation college student. I went to Gettysburg College and then to the University of Virginia for my graduate work. I taught at Gannon University for a year, and then this job opened up. It’s not often in academics that you get to come back home.
Have you always been interested in chemistry?
I think it’s a combination of interest and aptitude. My area of chemistry is a combination of a lot of different areas that involve things like wrenches, electronics and voltmeters—all the hands-on parts that I like. It’s a nice balance of the elements I like out of physics with the tactical application side.
Why did you want to be a Posse mentor?
I’ve come to know some of the New York Posse students quite well, and I like the ideals behind the program. I also know from my own background how important mentoring was to me, especially that first year. I really like mentoring students.
I like the one-on-one interactions.
What is your Posse like?
They are dynamic. They are enthusiastic. They have a world of potential. And they are really excited to come to F&M.
On RateMyProfessors.com, you are described as an “entertaining lecturer” and “tough grader.” How would you describe your teaching style? I think I am challenging but supportive. I like to work on the students’ sense of independence. I like to challenge them. Out of those challenges grow confidence, and I think that confidence can transcend the course material. I also try to get the students to develop a problem-solving logic so they are not always trying to memorize everything. I call it my “if, then, therefore.” If we have this, then this is going to happen, and therefore we want to do that.
Do you have a favorite F&M moment?
There are so many. But what struck me when I thought about it was that all of them revolved around watching students grow. We have the unique opportunity to watch an 18-year-old blossom into a 22-year-old. I think it’s my Mennonite farming background coming out when I tell people this. I look at the students like I am gettinga new bag of seeds. I have no idea what they are or what they are going to grow into. But we are going to plant them; we are going to nurture them individually. And four years later, we get the satisfaction of that harvest.
Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Jill Colford Schoeniger ’86.