Virginia Tech Magazine
Virginia Tech

Mike Ellerbrock: Natural Renaissance Man


The professor sketched a football-shaped diagram on the overhead projector. The upper curve, he explained to almost 200 first-year students, represented the benefits of an education, and the lower half stood for its costs.

"The benefits of your education are not exclusive to you," he said, drawing more curves for the marginal costs and marginal benefits. "There are benefits to other people as well."

Although the class on macroeconomics of food and fiber systems was only three weeks into the semester, Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics Mike Ellerbrock already knew many of his students by name. Early in his teaching career, he had formed a habit of asking the names of students who posed questions. This sort of individual attention and concern helped Ellerbrock earn Virginia Tech's 2010 William E. Wine Award for exceptional teaching and the ability to inspire students.

In addition to introductory courses on micro- and macroeconomics, Ellerbrock teaches Environment and Sustainable Development Economics, and Religion and Science. To an outsider, this range of courses might seem like a hodgepodge of teaching interests—but not to Ellerbrock, whose academic pursuits and service to the university and community have made him a sort of Renaissance Man at Virginia Tech.

"The Greeks had a concept of 'oikos,' or 'care for the household.' From this, we get our notions of economics, ecology, and ecumenism," said Ellerbrock, who, drawing from the ancient Greek idea of the planet as a three-legged stool, recognizes a parallel to modern dialogue on economic, environmental, and social sustainability. "For our planet to be managed in a sustainable manner, somehow we have to make a living, somehow we have to take out the trash, and somehow we have to all get along. If one of these three is not in place, then the whole system does not work."
Mike Ellerbrock has a knack for asking
questions, finding consensus, and
turning a topic upside down.

In his sustainable development course, Ellerbrock teaches his students about the costs and benefits of specific environmental policies, international agreements on environmental issues, and economic incentives to improve air and water quality. He also teaches students that capitalism does not have to be in conflict with conservation and preservation.

Ellerbrock's ability to find common ground where others see competition led him to establish the Virginia Natural Resources Leadership Institute, a partnership among various agencies designed to reconcile disputes between local communities and the Virginia Department of Transportation, to develop more environmentally friendly practices for loggers, to improve poultry nutrient management techniques, and to partner Tangier Island watermen with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

Ellerbrock, an ordained deacon at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Blacksburg and St. Jude's in Christiansburg, understands that his conflict-resolution skills are also important in other arenas. His newest course, Religion and Science, offers what he called "a safe space where I am teaching—not preaching—about the relationship between theology and science."

The course incorporates his typical Socratic teaching style. "The word 'education' derives from the Latin 'educare' or 'to draw out,' " he explained. "My goal as an instructor is not just to put facts and figures in my students' heads. Every student has the capacity for wisdom, and we as teachers are not here to instill [wisdom], but to draw it out."

Revisiting age-old debates between religion and science in a class with students from diverse backgrounds presents a number of challenges, but Ellerbrock has plenty of experience dealing with potential complications. As a chaplain for the Virginia Tech football team from 1996 to 2006, he counseled students from diverse faith traditions. He also conducts at least 10 weddings for Catholic students every year.

Although Ellerbrock's career has taken him around the world, he always returns to Virginia Tech, his home for the past 18 years. "I enjoy working for Virginia Tech and living in Blacksburg, and I hope to continue to do what I do for years to come," he said.

Much more than marginal, the benefits of Ellerbrock's presence are far-reaching, indeed.

Michael Sutphin (communication '06) is a public relations specialist for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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Spring 2011
Mike Ellerbrock, professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech
• Professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and 4-H economics education specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension
• President of the Faculty Senate for the 2010-11 academic year
• Teaches courses on introductory economics, environmental and sustainable development economics, and religion and science
• Provides economics education curricula for Virginia K-12 teachers through the Center for Economics Education
• Serves as the only agricultural economist on the faculty of the Foundation for Teaching Economics, an organization that has offered summer training for high school teachers from Bulgaria, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Romania, and Slovakia for the past five years
• One of 32 faculty members who sailed last spring with the University of Virginia's Semester at Sea and taught 650 students from around the country, making stops in Mexico, Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, and Brazil
• Ph.D. in applied economics and master's degree in recreation and parks administration from Clemson University; bachelor's degree in recreation and parks from Texas A&M University
• William E. Wine Award, 2010
• Student Alumni Associates Students' Choice Award, 2004 and 2008
• U.S. Department of Agriculture National Award for Teaching Excellence, 2002
• Sporn Award for Excellence in Teaching Introductory Subjects, 1998
• Outstanding Teaching Award from the Southern Agricultural Economics Association, 1997