PERSPECTIVES - Dr. Tom Nickles
Nevada Regents’ Teaching Award winner Thomas J. Nickles has a remarkable ability to make difficult ideas intelligible and accessible. What’s his secret? “I take toys to class!” he laughs. To illustrate rules of the probability calculus, Tom explains, “I take playing cards, coins, dice—or a bag of marbles of different colors from which students can sample a population.”
There’s a lot more to his success, though. With a Ph.D. from Princeton, where he studied with top scholars in the field, Tom has strong credentials in the philosophy of science. At the same time, he has a lively interest in what students are doing in all sorts of disciplines. Indeed, he’s in high demand as a graduate committee member for students from the humanities to computer science.
Tom began his own college studies as a physics major with some idea of pursuing an engineering career, and he was also interested in the arts. But he chose philosophy, he says, because “in philosophy I can study or delve into anything I’m interested in.” Tom encourages his own students “to develop their own critical and creative voices and lines of thought.”
Tom has used the same approach in the Davidson Summer THINK Institute for academically gifted youth. Philosophy Department Chair Ken Lucey recalls passing the Institute classroom and overhearing “the wonderful clamor and enthusiasm of youngsters engaging philosophical ideas.” Tom notes that “for many it is their first opportunity to have with their peers an open discussion that is directed to a problem. They are stretching their wings. They like intellectual play just as they like other kinds of play.”
Tom’s scholarly research currently focuses on the processes of innovative scientific problem solving: invention, creativity, discovery, or “any kind of process in which you see something emerging that wasn’t there from the beginning.”
In his 30 years at Nevada, Tom has been involved in creating courses in the history and philosophy of science, critical thinking, the philosophy of mind, and capstone courses entitled Science, Technology and Society and Religion and Science. Currently the Joseph Crowley Distinguished Professor in Core Humanities, Tom has taught humanities courses since the creation of the Core. He also plans to develop a new capstone course, an introduction to the philosophy of biology.
For Tom Nickles, the most worthwhile moments of teaching occur “when a door opens” for a student “and a whole new domain of possibilities opens up.”