While many educators allow students to use technology in the classroom, Prince George’s Community College professor Rocco Mennella said pencil, paper and a white board are as fancy as he gets.
“When I was in school, if someone turned a projector on, that meant nap time,” Mennella said, adding he doesn’t even allow his math students to use calculators. “Students need to learn mathematical abstraction.”
Mennella, 69, of New Carrollton has been teaching math, physics and engineering courses at the college since 1983, and has been an educator since 1967.
He is slated to receive the 2012 President’s Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers at a ceremony Sept. 28 in the District.
Victor McCrary, the organization’s president, said Mennella was selected after being nominated by a colleague at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt because of his commitment to encouraging students, particularly minorities, to pursue fields in science and technology. Mennella is one of 13 recipients of the award from across the country this year.
“If you look at a lot of the students he’s had, and it’s been a broad spectrum of students, one of the things people cite is his commitment to teaching things like calculus and physics, and actually getting them excited about it,” McCrary said. “These courses can be as dry as can be, or you can make it really exciting.”
Mennella describes himself as not only a teacher but a “guide” for his students.
“I teach the highest-level courses,” Mennella said. “So once they’re in, I take them under my wing and make sure they know where they’re headed and what they need to know.”
Coming out of Catholic University in the District, Mennella taught at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville beginning in 1967, where he and other teachers worked to expand the curriculum substantially, going from four courses that ended at algebra and trigonometry to courses as complex as Calculus III, he said.
“[DeMatha] really allowed us to innovate,” he said. “As a result, we both innovated — we as teachers and DeMatha as an institution.”
Mennella began working at the community college because, he said, he needed a higher salary to provide for his wife and five children. But he has continued to educate teenagers, staging weekend review sessions for accelerated math students at Eleanor Roosevelt High, in addition to the 10 courses he teaches annually at the community college.
The key to his continued success as an educator over more than four decades is a constant focus on improvement and attention to students, he said.
“You have to continue learning all the time, not only academically, but from your students,” he said. “You have to constantly look at the academic landscape, figure out what they need to know in order to be successful at the next level.”
Scott Sinex, chairman of the physical sciences and engineering department at the community college, said Mennella is the “most student-focused instructor” he has encountered, often helping students find their way to four-year institutions.
“He’s really a mentor to his students, and he does a phenomenal job at it,” Sinex said.
“He’s a really laid-back person, but he’s just super with how he interacts with students, and that’s pretty good for a physics and engineering professor. It’s certainly not accomplished by all.”
Mennella said his wife, who died in July 2011, would occasionally urge him to retire.
“She would always say, ‘Come on, it’s time to get out of here,’ ” he said. “But we just never had enough money for me to do it.”
Mennella jokingly said he would quit teaching “just as soon as I get out of debt.”
He stressed that young teachers need to reflect on how effective their lessons are and to strive to improve each day.
“I don’t feel bad. I think I probably have about five to 10 years left in me,” he said, referring to his plans to continue teaching.
Mennella said he was shocked to receive the award.
“I am just so humbled,” he said. “I was floored, because I’m just a person who works in the trenches.”