Witt geologist named top professor in Ohio

Springfield educator recognized for ‘learning by doing’ style.

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A Wittenberg University geology professor recently named Ohio Professor of the Year won that honor by playing dirty — that is, in Buck Creek and other local waterways.

John Ritter’s classes almost always end up outdoors, learning science by doing science.

“For them,” Ritter said, “it’s an opportunity to do the work they might do professionally.

“The science we do is modest, but it is science. It’s not going to win awards at the Nobel level, but that’s not why I’m in it, either.”

Specializing in geomorphology and environmental geology, Ritter joined the Wittenberg faculty in 1990. His honor on Nov. 14 through the U.S. Professors of the Year awards program — honoring the nation’s most outstanding undergraduate instructors — marks the seventh win for a Witt professor since the program started in 1981.

That’s more than any other four-year institution in Ohio, according to Wittenberg.

“For me, it’s the real deal,” Ritter, 52, said. “You’re judged by panels of experts in education. The submission is no light task.”

By his own admission, Ritter’s teaching style has evolved — perhaps fittingly for a man of science — since his arrival on campus.

“For a new faculty member,” he recalled, “you’re kind of teaching the way you’re taught.”

For Ritter, a Port Clinton native, that meant information was to be disseminated to the students from a textbook by way of a lecture outlined in Roman numerals.

“It didn’t engage me,” he confessed.

Then, like the movement of tectonic plates, two things in the 1990s shifted to shake up Ritter’s teaching style.

One was a change to Wittenberg’s curriculum that stated, “Students should gain an understanding of the natural world through scientific inquiry.”

“That doesn’t mean you’re reading about it in a textbook,” he said.

The other was the start of his family.

With two children, he explained, “It was a lot cheaper to drive to Beaver Creek as opposed to Montana.”

Ritter had regularly gone West to study mountainous watersheds and the factors that cause sediment to change in a semi-arid climate.

“I haven’t been there for years,” he said.

Particularly after his appointment in 1998 to the Clark Soil and Water Conservation District board of supervisors, he decided to stay closer to home to do research, and his students would help.

“It keeps me stimulated,” Ritter said.

In the years since, Ritter and his students have witnessed how parts of Beaver Creek locally have returned to a naturally meandering state with the adoption of conservation practices by some farmers. Before, he said, the creek had been straightened so that farmers could plant right up to its edge.

They’ve also monitored Buck Creek and documented how newly created recreational opportunities on the creek have actually helped restore the urban waterway.

Wittenberg has instruments on a five-mile span of Buck and Beaver creeks to monitor water levels and water quality.

The removal of four lowhead dams in Buck Creek for a whitewater course, he said, have improved the water to the point where it’s become hospitable to the possible migration of high-quality fish like trout.

A federally mandated fix to the city’s generations-old combined sewer overflow system — in which raw sewage mixed with stormwater flows into Buck Creek and the Mad River during heavy rains — will improve quality further, he said.

“That system is going to keep getting better,” Ritter said.

Sky Schelle, the city of Springfield’s stormwater coordinator, graduated from Wittenberg in 2000 with a degree in geology. He decided on his major after taking one of Ritter’s classes.

“I’ve never told him this before, but at that point, Dr. Ritter was like a father figure to me,” Schelle said.

Schelle went on to earn a master’s in environmental science from Ohio University, and has since relied on Wittenberg to feed him a steady string of interns — all of whom possess critical thinking skills, Schelle said, thanks to their time with Ritter.

“A lot of people think scientists are dry. That’s not John at all,” he said. “I loved every class I had with him.”