James DeNicco won Rice’s highest award for teaching by turning economics into an entertaining subject.

Academia was never originally part of James DeNicco’s life plans. But as the recent winner of the George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching, the highest award from the Center for Teaching Excellence, his life experiences have helped him connect with students. “I think students feel that I’m genuine,” DeNicco said. “I think they appreciate that I am somewhat different.”

After serving in the Marine Corps and then finishing his bachelor’s degree at Drexel University, DeNicco went on to work for the Bechtel Corporation. “It was a good job, but I just got very bored sitting in a cubicle.” When he went back to school to earn a Ph.D. in economics, DeNicco said he had planned to use it to enter the world of policy.

“Then I got in the classroom for the first time, and I thought, wow, this is a lot of fun,” he said. “If I can do this as a job, I think I could be one of those lucky people who really enjoy their work.” Receiving this teaching award was affirmation for DeNicco that students were having as much fun in the classroom as he was.

“I remember my first day teaching at Rice. We were talking about why we care about economics, and I started singing Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World.’ People started singing along, and I thought, ‘This is going to go OK.’”

“Economics is not always an easy class. Sometimes we talk about things that students may be uncomfortable hearing or talking about, or maybe are different than the way they’ve viewed them before,” DeNicco said. To keep students engaged, DeNicco said he puts a great deal of effort in his presentations of the material, from using sounds and animations on lecture slides to singing in class.

“I remember my first day teaching at Rice. We were talking about why we care about economics, and I started singing Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World.’ People started singing along, and I thought, ‘This is going to go OK.’”

Junior Hannah Lei took ECON 100 with DeNicco as a freshman and said she appreciates his entertaining and approachable style. “His anecdotes from his youth and even up until now completely changed my perception of professors because of how unconventional his path to academia was,” said Lei.

DeNicco said he enjoys teaching Rice students because of how much they care about their education. “When people are keeping up with the material, doing the homework, doing what you request them to do for the class, it allows you to really engage with them and the material. Besides the students, what I love about Rice is that it is a serious research institution, but more so than almost any other research institution out there, we really do care about teaching.” 

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