Moloney Still Has the Magic

Wednesday, May 01, 2019
Professor Moloney working with a pair of students.

Michael Moloney is retiring at the end of this school year after 51 years teaching physics at Rose-Hulman. He has been named the Dean’s Outstanding Teacher and Indiana Physics Teacher of the Year.

In his 51st and last year teaching physics at Rose-Hulman, Michael Moloney’s world is still in constant motion, much like the molecules that first attracted him to studying science.

And, whether it’s in the classroom, laboratory or his office, a blackboard is always nearby for Moloney to help students solve a puzzling mathematical problem or showcase the purpose behind a physics experiment.

Amazingly, he’s nearly always right with his calculations.

It's an ability that caused students to begin referring to Moloney as "Magic Mike" in the mid-1980s. Nobody has disputed the appropriateness of the moniker since.

"He has a pure energy and unbounded love for the teaching of physics. He’s an inspiration to us all in the department," says Galen Duree, head of the Department of Physics and Optical Engineering.

He is, as the sign on his desk states, “kind of a big deal.” The sign, a gift from one of his three children, hints at his impact on the department, the institute and countless students over last five decades.

Moloney has been named the Dean’s Outstanding Teacher and Indiana Physics Teacher of the Year, has advocated improved teaching styles and curriculum changes, assisted several undergraduate students to complete research projects, and had papers on a variety of topics published in physics journals.

He is the longest serving member of the Rose-Hulman faculty, teaching full time since 1970. (He also was a member of the faculty from 1966-68 – leading to his 51 years of service to the institute.)

"My goal is for each student to learn physics," he says. "If there is some flavor in the course work, the students will learn. There's no harm in showing that physics is fun and interesting."

It’s a valuable lesson that Moloney learned within the first two weeks of his teaching tenure. He found that students weren’t understanding the topics being taught in his lectures. He recalls, “I may have been teaching things brilliantly and eloquently, but the students weren’t understanding the concepts that I was teaching. I changed the course of my teaching right away. If you can’t connect with the students, why be a teacher?”

Moloney’s own appreciation for physics came after studying chemistry at the Illinois Institute of Technology, earning a bachelor's degree in 1958. After a three-year stint as an electronics officer in the U.S. Navy, he studied physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for one year before earning his doctorate in physics from the University of Maryland in 1966. He then started his first teaching stint at Rose Polytechnic Institute before leaving for two years to teach at Lafayette College (Pa.).

He returned to Rose because of an appreciation for its hard-working students and the collegiality among the institute’s faculty.

“When you assign classroom work to (Rose) students, they do the work. They come to class prepared. What more can a teacher ask for?” Moloney says.

His teaching and research interests have covered acoustics, theoretical mechanics, electromagnetics, the physics of solid-state devices, and data acquisition through personal computers. 

Away from the classroom, Moloney has taken students to help eradicate invasive honeysuckle at community and state parks. His longstanding love of reading has him visiting bookstores in towns throughout the area. He’ll soon have more time to spend time reading and traveling with his wife, Mary, of 55 years. And, he still plans to continue enjoying a beer on Sunday nights with physics colleague Michael McInerney – a cherished weekly ritual.

“I feel physically that I could keep doing this for a little while longer,” Moloney says. “I still have a love of teaching and being around the students. They give me energy. However, it’s time to slow down, smell the wildflowers and enjoy other things in life.”

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