Education has been a recurring theme throughout chemistry instructor Dr. Carmela Magliocchi-Byrnes’ life. Her own enthusiasm for lifelong learning and her remarkable ability to engage students has paved the way for countless success stories in a class that might otherwise be considered challenging and difficult.
“Teaching has always been a common thread in my life,” said Carmela. “Just seeing students reach those potentials—it’s rewarding for me to watch, and it’s amazing seeing the students achieve them.”
Even from an early age, Carmela viewed the world as being full of opportunities ready to be revealed. She was born in British Columbia, Canada, where her parents had immigrated from Italy. They moved to Toronto, Ontario, where Carmela grew up and first discovered she enjoyed teaching others.
“I was play-teaching my siblings and cousins at the age of five in my parents’ garage,” she said. “Honestly, I think what inspired me was growing up as a first generation, because my parents are Italian immigrants, and I grew up speaking Italian before I spoke English. And so, whenever my parents needed some help, I was their translator and I would help them with mail or talking with different people.”
She believes her role in teaching her parents is what really opened her up to the idea of teaching professionally. She later attended York University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Science (Chemistry and Applied Mathematics) concurrently with a bachelor’s degree in Education and taught at elementary and high school levels.
After participating in a research project that really interested her, Carmela decided she wasn’t done learning. She went to graduate school at Texas A&M and continued teaching, then pursued her passion of researching while also mentoring grad students. She oversaw the research group area, making sure everything was maintained while getting exclusive hands-on opportunities in creating new chemical compounds, working with Schlenk lines and vacuum pumps and building arc welders.
After Carmela completed her doctorate in chemistry, her husband, who was a marine, got stationed in California. While there, she taught at a community college and a university. She also explored her interest in industry research while working for a failure analysis research company, where she worked with physicists on building infrared technology and laser microscopes for semiconductor parts used in electronic devices manufactured by renowned tech companies such as Intel and Nvidia.
“I had the opportunity to see some of their new devices,” said Carmela. “Obviously, they were in a chip format. They would send it to me, and I would power them up and find problems with them, what we call hotspots, before they went into production, essentially making sure their devices weren’t overheating.”
In addition to testing devices, she went to different companies and set up instrumentation, performed calibration and trained the companies’ employees so they could perform those tasks in house. After being stationed in Virginia, she began working at a community college and was introduced to online teaching in 2009. Since online instruction was new territory for the school, Carmela helped them develop the online chemistry department and chemistry courses.
“Being introduced to it was very eye-opening,” said Carmela. “It expanded that world and allowed me to continue to learn. You’re always learning, even in your own field, but then with this other new field of online education—oh my goodness—I just became engrossed in it. From there, it’s just ballooned, and I’ve continued to teach online.”
In 2011, Carmela’s husband was restationed and they moved to Carteret County. Carmela began working as a chemistry instructor at Craven Community College (Craven CC) in 2012, and her energetic approach to learning has made a world of difference for students and colleagues alike. She has worked with a wide spectrum of students, from high schoolers just getting a taste of higher education to those in their 80s trying to finally earn their degree.
“Each student is different and brings a wide range of knowledge,” she said. “Thus, the same approach is not applicable to every individual. I try to teach in a way that will reach all my students.”
Her end goal is to prepare them to lead successful lives, and part of her teaching process is giving students opportunities to learn from mistakes. For students who don’t do well on their first exam, Carmela gives them a chance to partially make up missed points if they prove they are willing to put forth the effort to understand what they got wrong. She discusses the concepts with students individually to make sure they comprehend the missed concepts.
She also loves to incorporate a hands-on approach in her lessons and has found that students are more willing to learn when they can actively participate and take the reins of their own education. Her students’ favorite activity is doing an explosion experiment, which teaches them about chemical reactions while also grabbing their attention and making it fun.
“We’ve exploded pumpkins, we’ve exploded balloons, we have done the explosion of the ‘black snake’ experiments,” said Carmela. “I like to provide that opportunity to students and give them that excitement. Seeing that hands-on is always going to draw the students and draw the audience. It draws me too. I always get excited every time I do it. It’s a lot of fun.”
She likes to get her students to ask questions, have them offer answers even if they’re unsure and then emphasize that not knowing the correct answer is perfectly fine since everyone is there to learn. She said introducing that concept early on changes the whole atmosphere and relieves anxiety that some may be feeling.
In 2013, Carmela became involved with the Science Club as a faculty mentor and co-advisor with other Craven CC faculty, assisting students with hands-on science activities on the college’s New Bern and Havelock campuses. She strongly believes that education should not be limited to the classroom, so they go on field trips and host the Star Party event at Fisher’s Landing, during which participants learn about stars, witness a color-changing fire pit and enjoy hot dogs and s’mores. She continues to be the science club’s co-advisor.
In another attempt to showcase her students, Carmela has incorporated a fun project into her chemistry classes that meet in the fall semester. She has students come up with chemistry versions of popular Christmas carols, which are then performed for the class and published for the community to enjoy. This has now been her class tradition since 2015.
In collaboration with other colleagues and fellow book lovers, she began a book club in 2017. It started as a college event to share the joy of reading but soon expanded to incorporate any book lover within the community. They try to meet once per month at various venues for a very casual, no-pressure experience.
Carmela was part of the 2018-2019 Community of Online Re-Designers (CORD) cohort, a professional development opportunity in which she was challenged to create a peer-reviewed fully online chemistry course incorporating labs and lectures. She has also worked with publishers to help students purchase textbooks at a lower cost.
Her most recent endeavor to share the joy of chemistry with the community has been in facilitating STEM Saturday, an annual service-learning event hosted by Craven CC students at the New Bern-Craven County Public Library started in 2018. She has been blown away by the community’s positive feedback, and her students look forward to it for months.
“This is a semester-long project that connects service learning to course material,” said Carmela. “It’s an excellent way for students to showcase what they have learned while in class, provide outreach to the community and highlight what we do here at Craven Community College.”
She believes the most important aspect in her role as a teacher is inspiring students. Since everyone is at a different level, she meets each student where they are and helps them build on their own abilities. She also realizes that chemistry is not an easy subject, and she does all she can to encourage her students and remind them that they can and will get through it.
“I usually tell students they’re like training wheels: As you become more comfortable, those training wheels come off,” Carmela explained. “I just had a WebEx session with my online class. We were talking and I used that same concept. I’m explaining something, and one of the students said, ‘The wheels just came off!’ So it’s that stuff—the ‘aha’ moments that you are constantly engaged in that really feeds my soul.”
She’s also involved in other college events, including Pi Day/Einstein’s birthday on March 14. Instructors have the option to dress up as Albert Einstein and get pied by students, with the idea of drawing the students and community members to science through fun activities.
In addition to all her efforts to highlight students, Carmela constantly looks for ways to support them. She has helped several students pursue their dreams by connecting them with resources they were previously unaware of, such as transfer programs that allow them to work on earning their bachelor’s degree while completing an associate degree at the community college. She’s even had former students reach out to her to ask her opinion on the best schools and programs to pursue, which she considers an honor.
“It’s those life moments that really reward me,” said Carmela. “And then hearing from students afterwards always is a pleasure, even after they’ve moved on from my course or they’ve graduated.”
She was recently the recipient of Craven CC’s annual Excellence in Teaching Award, proving just how impactful her roles as instructor and mentor have become. While Carmela very much prefers to be a behind-the-scenes person, she is thrilled to know she’s making a difference in her students’ lives. She emphasized that she could not have gotten where she is today without the unwavering support of her family—including her husband, five-year-old twins, nine-year-old and 12-year-old—and her colleagues.
“I just want to thank everyone because you don’t do it alone,” said Carmela. “Everyone has helped me so much in being able to achieve excellence. No one does it alone, so just being thankful and grateful and showing gratitude—I’m just very humbled and honored.”
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Published with permission by the New Bern Sun Journal. This article was originally published July 6, 2020. Read it here.