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Professor Cathy Middlecamp retires after four decades with UW-Madison

November 5, 2020

This January, Nelson Institute professor Cathy Middlecamp will retire after more than four decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During her time on campus, she has worked as an academic staff member in the Department of Chemistry, a tenured faculty member in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and the director of several programs, including one currently at the Office of Sustainability. Middlecamp, the recipient of honors at the local, state, and national level, is widely recognized for improving chemistry education and the student experience.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and at first, my eye was on becoming a high school chemistry teacher,” Middlecamp said of her early career aspirations. “But it wasn’t just any chemistry that I wanted to teach.  I wanted to teach chemistry as if people and the planet mattered.”

Middlecamp, however, never took the high school position that she was offered.  Rather, her thesis advisor at Cornell University, chemistry professor Jim Burlitch, pointed her toward graduate school. Recognizing her passion for teaching, he urged her to apply for a Danforth Fellowship for graduate education.  

“Danforth Fellowships went to college seniors with a passion for teaching in any discipline, but very seldom to chemistry majors. To be named as a Danforth Fellow, your teaching needed to connect to a set of values.” said Middlecamp.  “I must have convinced the interview team that I had a higher purpose in how I wanted chemistry to connect to the lives of people and to the planet. Perhaps I stood out from the crowd on that one?” From these early days, you can see what eventually led Middlecamp to the Nelson Institute.

But Middlecamp’s path to the Nelson Institute was long and at several points difficult.  After graduating from UW-Madison, Middlecamp joined the faculty of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, as an assistant professor. But with no job there for her husband Ralph, she needed to look elsewhere.  In 1979, she returned to UW-Madison to take a position with Dr. Betsy Kean in the Chemistry Tutorial Program for Minority/Disadvantaged students.  Middlecamp notes that Minority/Disadvantaged or M/D was the label used at that time; she and Kean later renamed the program to the Chemistry Learning Center.  In 1989, she became its director.  

“I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful way to launch my career at UW-Madison.  In so many ways, my views today were shaped by the students of color whose talents and whose hopes for future professional paths did not mesh with their experiences in general chemistry.  For these students, the chemistry gateway courses often were a dead end.”

Middlecamp’s ability to connect with a wide range of students was noted by her colleagues at the American Chemical Society.  During the 1990s, Middlecamp was invited to join the author team of a national curriculum project for liberal arts students, Chemistry in Context.  

“It was my dream assignment to engage students in learning chemistry connected to real-world issues such as air quality, global warming, food, and plastics.  I lived, wrote, and slept the issues in that textbook. The talented editors under whom I worked taught me that when writing a textbook, every word counts.”

Middlecamp worked on the Chemistry in Context project for two decades and was named editor-in-chief in 2006. During those years, she also taught the 5-credit chemistry course for non-science majors in the chemistry department.

In addition to her work on Chemistry in Context and in the Learning Center, Middlecamp also co-created the Department of Chemistry’s first (and only) course that met the UW Ethnic Studies Requirement, “Uranium and American Indians.”  She accomplished this with her colleague Omie Baldwin (Dineh) whom she met years earlier because Baldwin’s daughter had been a chemistry student of hers.

“Together, Omie and I told a story of people and of chemistry, which is how chemistry should be taught anyway,” Middlecamp said. “It was a huge challenge to teach this course. We even traveled to a uranium mill to learn about the miners and the land.”

After more than 25 years with the Department of Chemistry, Middlecamp sought a tenure home and found that within the Nelson Institute. She joined the staff as a tenured professor, engaged a team of graduate students, and launched work with several programs including the Community and Environmental Scholars Program (CESP).

“When the door closed in chemistry, another one opened,” Middlecamp said. “People had been telling me for years to check out the Nelson Institute.  No doubt, the high point of my 40-year career was coming home to the Nelson Institute. The work was challenging, rewarding, fun, and everything one could hope for with such great co-workers.”

Middlecamp’s co-workers include Rob Beattie and Molly Schwebach in the CESP program, a scholarship program designed for students who want to link their passion for the environment with a commitment to the community. Middlecamp and Beattie serve as co-directors for the program that offers students financial assistance though scholarships, social activities with a small cohort, and the opportunity to participate in community-based projects.

“Cathy is amazing at building relationships with students in the program,” said Beattie. “She’s taught me that you can be compassionate and rigorous, open and yet professional. It has been an honor for me to teach beside her and watch her do that.”

Schwebach added, “Cathy lifts up everyone around her. Cathy is open, direct, and authentic and students respond by sharing their challenges, asking difficult questions and bringing their best selves to her classes.”

In addition to her work with CESP, Middlecamp also serves as the Director of Sustainability Education and Research with the Office of Sustainability. Middlecamp has been with the Office since it began.

“I just love the work with my sustainability colleagues. Our students can work on sustainability-related projects right here on our campus,” Middlecamp said.

Middlecamp’s years of dedication to sustainability and science at UW-Madison have not gone unnoticed. Her colleagues, including Nelson Institute Dean, Paul Robbins, have observed the way she connects with students.

Cathy Middlecamp
Middlecamp demonstrating Environmental
Studies 126 class concepts in 2017.
Photo: Bryce Richter/UW–Madison

"Cathy is a tireless supporter of students. Whether dramatically setting things on fire in her teaching (sometimes literally!) or providing a steady hand and a welcoming ear for our CESP students, she is always, always, always there,” Robbins said. “They say that everyone can be replaced. I think Cathy proves that's just not so."

Likewise, leaders at UW-Madison appreciate her efforts to elevate sustainability and the importance of student engagement here on campus.

“Cathy is a wonderful student-centered educator, through her many roles in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, Department of Chemistry, Integrated Liberal Studies, and the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability, where she serves as director of sustainability education and research” UW- Madison Provost Karl Scholz said. “She has done a magnificent job developing opportunities for experiential student learning, helping to develop team-based, mission-driven projects supporting campus sustainability, and serving as a tireless ambassador to elevate sustainability both inside and outside of the classroom. She also was instrumental in UW-Madison's receipt of its first rating through the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). I am grateful for her leadership and service to this campus.”

As Middlecamp steps away from her many roles, she feels confident that her efforts to teach science as if people and the planet matter will continue. And, while some would say she’s left quite a legacy, she hopes it’s less about what she’s leaving behind and more about what others will continue to do in the wider community.

“People think of a legacy as what you leave behind. I’d rather think about the students that we send forth,” Middlecamp said. “I hope that the students and colleagues I’ve worked with will continue to come up with ideas do great things. And, to any extent that I’ve been a part of their vision for the future, I am honored to have done so.”