Martin Schmerr

Biological and Physical Sciences

Featured Instructor

Martin Schmerr headshot.“All students can learn,” says Martin Schmerr, PhD, a professor in the Department of Biological and Physical Sciences at Central Ohio Technical College (COTC).

Schmerr joined COTC in the fall of 2011 after working at the Cleveland Clinic doing developmental pancreatic work and research. He received his bachelor’s degree in microbiology and molecular genetics, his PhD in molecular and cellular biology, and completed his post-doctorate at a diabetes research institute.

Schmerr got his first taste of teaching when he was a graduate student serving as a teaching assistant, and later as an adjunct professor while working in Cleveland. “I always liked working with students,” Schmerr says. “That was always the most exciting part to me. So I finally decided, why do it on the side? Why not do it all the time?”

A diversified approach to teaching

The most rewarding part of teaching for Schmerr is “the process of discovery. It’s a two-way street — sometimes they teach me.” It’s that student interaction that brought him to COTC, and it’s that relationship that’s kept him here. “I actually passed on other positions to come to COTC, because I was very impressed with the culture of the campus,” he says. “It’s a place that really values strong teaching.”

COTC has many nontraditional learners — something Schmerr values as a teacher. “Our students are working on degrees to go right into the workforce, and they come from different backgrounds. That intrigues me, that you can have such a breadth of different experiences, and how to approach that,” he explains. “That makes teaching like an art form because it’s going to be something different each time. That’s very exciting.”

Schmerr believes this varied, diverse approach to education is valuable to our society. “Our access points are so varied,” he states. “We can engage students that, traditionally, probably wouldn’t seek out college, and it gets them right into a high-paying career.” He continues, “I feel like it’s a very valuable and important part of society because it helps a lot of students with professional mobility.”

POGIL training

A professor wearing a lab coat and glasses stands between two students wearing protective equipment during an exercise in class.Schmerr’s approach to teaching is student-driven, as seen by his deployment of a teaching strategy called process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL). “I’ve been doing this since 2013,” he says. “STEM fields are always a barrier for a lot of students. As a result, that really limits the number of students who are successful in those classes. That’s a problem — we want to see more representation of different groups within STEM careers.”

POGIL aims to stimulate the nontechnical skills in these fields through student-driven activities. “They’re commonly called soft skills, but we call them process skills,” Schmerr explains. “Like teamwork or communication or problem-solving — things that are necessary for success, but not always taught in these subjects.” He points out the relevancy of teamwork in fields such as healthcare.

Schmerr’s lessons are driven by and for the students. “I don’t talk as much as the students talk,” he says. “Rather than me getting up on the stage and telling them what to know, they’re constructing their own knowledge. I can almost see what they’re thinking because they have to talk about it with others. To me, that’s the heart and soul of learning.” Schmerr first learned about POGIL at a workshop at another university and will attend the national meeting this summer, where instructors will work on ways to grade and assess these activities.

Advice for students

“Persevere,” Schmerr advises his students. “Things will get challenging and hard and frustrating, but you don’t want to give up. As soon as you give up, you’ve changed your trajectory. But if you persevere, you’ll always keep looking for new ways to accomplish your goals.”

He also tells students to give themselves more time. “Learning is not something that’s quick and easy,” he says. “We have to give ourselves ample time. Some students will tell me their brain hurts. I’m like, ‘Yes! I’ve done my job for today.’ Because, again, learning is not an easy thing to do.”

Schmerr spends his free time outdoors. “I’m a very avid gardener — I actually fancy myself a little bit of a farmer,” he says. “I love being outside; I love being in the natural world. I think there’s so much beauty around us.”