When Cedar Creek High School teacher of the year Jim Brownhill graduated from Absegami High School in 1994, he wanted to go into chemistry.
His undergraduate studies at Richard Stockton College only affirmed that choice. But while undergraduate chemistry was exhilarating, Brownhill, who pursued his master's degree at Virgina Tech, found his graduate work to be a bore - except, that is, for the time he spent as a teacher's aide.
As a graduate student, Brownhill assisted his professors by teaching class in their stead, which he found more to his liking than research.
"The more I was there, the less I liked doing research and the more I liked doing the TA (teaching assistant) stuff," said Brownhill, 31. "The students kind of had those 'a-ha' moments. It's kind of addicting when you're able to help somebody understand something."
In the midst of his career-choice crisis, Brownhill heard from a friend, who was then a teacher at Absegami, about an opening in the school's science department. Brownhill abandoned his studies at Virginia Tech, earned his teaching certification and started teaching at Absegami in 2001.
Brownhill quickly emerged as one of the top science teachers in the district and was invited to join the staff at Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City when it opened in 2010.
In addition to teaching chemistry at Cedar Creek, Brownhill is one of three staffers involved in the school's engineering curriculum, which is part of a national program called Project Lead the Way, designed to inspire future leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
Brownhill, who lives in Mullica with his wife, Susan, and their two sons, said mastering the new curriculum posed an exciting challenge.
"I loved chemistry, and I still do, but the engineering program was something completely new, so it was completely new for me, too," Brownhill said. "I had to attend summer classes, kind of, to learn what was expected of the program, so having that new stuff was like starting all over again. It was like teaching was brand new."
As part of the program, Brownhill teaches students to engineer objects using programs such as AutoCAD and Autodesk Inventor. Student designs are then fed into a laser engraver or 3-D printer located behind the classroom for immediate fabrication. Having these machines available opens up exciting possibilities for students, Brownhill said.
The engineering program has been a big success at Cedar Creek, due in no small part to Brownhill's devotion to learning the curriculum, Principal James Reina said.
"Jim has really been one of the most significant driving forces in the engineering magnet," Reina said. "He spends his own time during nights, weekends, doing research for the magnet. He communicates with professors at Rowan, so I think he kind of follows that trend of it's more than just what's done in the classroom; it's what type of commitment and impact do you have for the whole building."
Despite his colleagues' accolades, Brownhill feels he's constantly finding areas of improvement in his teaching, often through observing his more experienced peers.
To have been selected Teacher of the Year from among the many peers he admires, Brownhill said, is a great honor.
"There are so many teachers in here who do such a fantastic job. ... When I leave here every day, (I say,) 'I wish I could have done that better; I could have done this differently,' so to know that others think highly of what you're doing is a nice feeling," Brownhill said.
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