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A man of many passions

—As an educator, Erik Christensen is one of the most amicable individuals you may ever come across.

Not only is he an innovative teacher, Christensen has taken part in world-record military salvage operations, completed formal culinary training and has recently been selected as a team leader with the Florida Baptist Disaster Relief Organization.

He has traveled the world, both personally and professionally. He enjoys cycling with Darlene, his wife of 32 years – in fact, they both love it so much that they spent five months cycling around New Zealand when he retired from the U.S. Navy.

As chairman of the Natural Science Department at South Florida State College, Christensen is responsible for budget projection and monitoring, reviewing teachers’ proposed curriculum and schedules, staff evaluation and the revising departmental procedures as necessary.

He also hosts star-gazing nights the general public can attend.

This level of responsibility is not what sets Christensen apart. It is his passion for life and following his dreams that most inspires those who meet him.

As an educator, Christensen is pioneering a new method of affordable textbooks for students so they can take classes without fear of steadily rising cost of textbooks, which often accounts for about one-third of their cost while in two-year colleges.

Christensen first became aware of the problem a few years ago when he was approached by a student who wanted to take his course but could not afford the required textbook.

He asked if perhaps there was a spare copy of the previous edition that could be given to him on loan for use during the course.

“It was in my mind that I’ve got to fix this problem – the books were getting up to more than $200,” Christensen said.

Providence smiled on Christensen about a week later in the form of a flier about a National Science Foundation workshop on “adaptable curriculum.”

Although he had never heard of it before, Christensen thought to himself, “that’s the answer to the problem” and attended the workshop to investigate this new process of textbook circulation.

He was delighted to discover there were multiple levels of textbooks available and he could customize the book by changing words, chapter sequence, or even add local features to make it something students could relate to.

“I came back and copied one chapter to try it,” he said. “The students loved it and the material was more engaging to them. I liked it because the book had more mathematics in it. The next semester I went hog-wild and used the new format exclusively. I could post a PDF file online and students could view it, download it and print out any pages they wanted.”

Christensen’s students participate in a national benchmark test of physics comprehension on forces and motion.

“My students increased their scores and understanding of the material by 30 percent from the previous year. National averages range around 22-25 percent,” he said, with pride

Adaptable curriculum, now known as Open Educational Resource, can be downloaded for free for biology, physics, sociology, anatomy/physiology, statistics, and economics on the Open Stax website at: https://openstaxcollege.org. Pre-calculus, chemistry, history and psychology are in development.

For those students who want to purchase a hard copy of the textbook, they may do so for approximately $50. The Open Stax program is funded solely by grants from several major donors, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 20 Million Minds Foundation, the Maxfield Foundation, and Rice University.

Recalling the early days of OER, Christensen said: “I was actually their very first adopter of their very first book. When they were getting ready to go live, they hired me to review chapters. I received a small stipend and I went through each chapter and said, ‘No, students have problems here’ or ‘this picture is not right’ and I explained why. They fixed it up.”

Maria Silva, a student in Christensen’s astronomy class, said: “I was really skeptical because I’ve never taken an online course, but he’s a great professor and I’m glad that I signed up for this class. I like the way the book is written, it’s very easy to read and because I can download a copy for free, it really helps makes working toward a degree affordable.”

Christensen became a teacher in 2004 after retiring from more than 22 years in the U.S. Navy.

He was the commanding officer of the Navy Experimental Diving Unit located in Panama City. During his military career, Christensen was a naval engineer and deep-sea diver. His deepest dive required specialty breathing gases and took him to a depth of 2,000 feet (more than one-third of a mile). By contrast, most recreational divers frequent depths of about 60 feet to 80 feet.

As a technical diver, Christensen has experience in repairing ships and conducting the salvage operations of ships or planes.

As a naval engineer and salvage expert, he was flown to evaluate the recovery of a Navy ship that had been blown across the harbor during a typhoon.

“The ship had smashed into the rocks. I did calculations and we shifted the ballast around, pulled it off the rocks,” he said.

With no shortage of challenges for an experienced technical diver, Christensen was part of a “world-record attempt for the deepest ocean recovery of a helicopter in 12,500 feet of water off Wake Island in the Pacific. It had crashed and we needed to find out why. Until mechanical problems were ruled out, the fleet had been grounded worldwide.” He has gone diving all over the world and enjoyed diving in Truk Lagoon, Micronesia, Korea and Hawaii.

He volunteers a significant portion of his time and culinary talent to the First Baptist Church in Sebring.

Christensen said, “When the kitchen is open, we serve about 125 people each week. A team of 22 workers assist me - some in the morning and others in the afternoon. My goal is to provide a three-course, restaurant-quality meal that we cook from scratch, charging $5 per adult and $2 for children.”

Carmen Ramirez, a member of First Baptist and volunteer with the Disaster Relief Organization said, “Erik Christensen is a wonderful person, committed 100 percent to our church. He is a really wonderful, great respect for him, one of my best friends. We’ve gone out a few times on hurricane training exercises and he is very responsible, very committed.”

Christensen was born in Irwin, Penn. and decided upon a naval career when he learned of the U.S. Naval Academy during an eight-grade grade civics class. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Ocean Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy, a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Naval Engineer degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For information on his star parties, visit: www.sfcc-astronomy.wikifoundry.com