Patti Turner first started her educational path at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. She never once dreamt that she would become a teacher, let alone the dean of Science, Engineering and Technology at Howard Community College (HCC).
Everything changed when she took a food and drug safety course with Dr. Carl Weber, who introduced her to the field of teaching when he offered her a job as a tutor in physics, biology and chemistry at UMBC. Eventually, she transferred to HCC where she ended up staying for more than 42 years.
Turner started out at HCC in 1975 as an assistant instructor in the science labs, where she fell in love with the environment. At first, she thought she was just going to stay for five years, but she stayed another year, and then another, and finally realized she enjoyed the students and other faculty members and couldn’t see herself going anywhere else.
While she was working in the assistant instructor position, where she served as the laboratory instructor for various science classes taught by other faculty members, she attended Towson University in the evenings in order to earn a master’s degree in biology, with the intent of being able to teach her own classes. She not only achieved that goal in 1981, eventually earning a full professorship at the college, but ultimately, she advanced to her current position as dean. She currently teaches only the Human Anatomy and Physiology II classes.
Community Was Her Inspiration
Turner did not set out to stay at HCC, but it was the community that kept her there. She credits her faculty for the amount of work she has been able to accomplish, including participation in the development and design of the new Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) building that was opened on the HCC campus in 2017.
Teamwork makes the dream work, as it turns out. The new, state-of-the-art building provides students numerous opportunities, from its hands-on labs to its astronomy classes that will eventually get a telescope so students can observe and study the stars and other celestial objects, particularly exoplanets.
The new building also provides a conducive environment for study, with special study spaces and an attractive, modern design. “It’s an efficient building, and it looks very slick,” said Nathan Mitchell, a student at HCC. Chanye Wright, another HCC student, agreed. “There’s a lot of cool places to study,” she said. “When I’m not in a hurry, I’ll go there to study, where there are large windows to give a nice view.”
Biology, More Than Life
“A girl’s night out” is what Turner even now calls going to biology classes. “Some people go to bars … I go [to class].” Her enthusiasm is obvious when she talks about biology. She said she finds it “absolutely fascinating” to figure out how different species share similarities, repeating basic designs that become specialized through adaptation.
“Nature designs a lot of neat solutions,” she said. “Knowledge about how systems work in nature is enlightening, and may influence our own engineering designs.”
Turner is very passionate about what she does and where she is going in life, not to mention where her students’ lives are headed. She loves biology and sees it as a “perfect connection between science and medicine.” When she was a child, she always wanted to find a way to help people. She thought at first she’d go into nursing, but then she decided that path wasn’t for her. Now, she feels like she is on a better path, as she has helped students learn who have graduated and gone on to become nurses and doctors.
Looking to the Future
Under Turner’s leadership, HCC also has signed an agreement with the University of Maryland College Park for a Fire Engineering program to support the University of Maryland’s Fire and Rescue Institute.
“They can’t graduate enough people to meet demand across the country,” Turner said.
A similar SET program has been developed to support Howard County’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services, leading to a fire services and leadership degree to help with career progression.
Among the goals Turner has for the SET department is developing new relationships with HCC’s four-year partners. “I’d like to see more joint research being done,” she said.
A plant science program recently was added, and a new aerospace engineering program is also under development.
The entire staff in the SET building is working on publishing a science-related, student undergraduate research journal. Turner is especially determined to get this project published to share her students’ work with others. She believes that this is a very important step into the future. In her freshman and sophomore years of college, something like that would have been limited to graduate school students.
“I want our students to have … the same opportunities [as they do] at a four-year school,” Turner said. “I just want us to be better.”
Amy Huggins is a Rouse Scholar at Howard Community College. She currently is an intern with The Business Monthly.