Ken Piers figures he has taught “Organic Chemistry” to between 4,000 and 5,000 Calvin students. Given that the course is typically regarded as the most difficult classwork in any major at the college, Piers has been at the crossroads of career paths for numerous students.
“For some ‘Organic’ is the ‘break’ course,” he said. “It can clarify the future and align the direction of some students. Most adapt well.”
Piers thinks the course gets its reputation from the fact that it demands equal excellence in memory—since the subject matter has a large vocabulary of terms—and in conceptual understanding, for the many principles that are at play.
“I think there are as many new words to learn in organic chemistry as in beginning a foreign language,” he noted.
He taught the subject at Calvin for 46 years, from 1968 to 2014—even though he “retired” in 2007. That includes most summers, which he said is becoming a more popular time for students to take the two-semester course because they can take the sections back-to-back with no interim in between.
Piers was born, he said, “on the edge of civilization” in Alberta, and did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Alberta. What he knew about Christian education he learned because his cousin dragged him to meetings of the John Calvin Club at the university.
After postgraduate work in Switzerland and then in London, Ont., his pastor at a local Christian Reformed Church recommended him to the chemistry department at Calvin after the legendary professor John De Vries passed away.
Piers said he was very glad he had attended those Calvin Club meetings as he interviewed, but after receiving the Calvin post, he dedicated himself to learning more about the theology and philosophy behind Christ-centered education.
Given his Canadian heritage, he was also pulled into the emerging Calvin hockey program where he both co-coached and coached the team.
On the other side of the discipline’s spectrum, the Piers has also often taught “Introduction to Chemistry.” He has enjoyed the challenge of bringing the foundational elements of the subject to students with a great diversity in previous chemistry studies.
As part of a revision to the core curriculum, Piers lobbied to add “Energy and the Environment” that was available to non-science majors. The course examined the environmental effects of the way we live on creation and discussed sustainability and stewardship.
Amy Puls Bax ’94 nominated Piers for the award, along with her husband, Kevin.
“I have personally experienced that Ken Piers is an extraordinary teacher, which is why I believe he is a wonderful choice for this award,” she said. “In fact, both my husband and I count him among the best teachers we had during our time at Calvin.
“Kevin and I have vivid memories of ‘Organic Chemistry’ class,” Bax continued. “Professor Piers was able to explain a complicated topic in an engaging and entertaining manner, revealing the beauty and order of God’s creation in the minute details of chemical reactions. After less than a semester in his class, we were even able to assist a chemistry graduate student with his work in organic chemistry.”
Piers expressed gratitude for the honor: “Altogether, events such as this serve to remind us of God’s goodness and rich blessings to the Calvin community as it strives to continue along its goal of providing deep, thorough and authentic Christian education to its students even while holding before its students the enticing prospect of servant-leadership in the Kingdom of God.”