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Movers And Shakers

Brian Coppola

Award-winning professor uses storytelling to engage students learning organic chemistry

by Linda Wang
March 19, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 12


Credit: David Bay/U of Michigan
Brian Coppola
Credit: David Bay/U of Michigan

At the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, organic chemistry professor Brian P. Coppola sees every lecture as a story, and organic molecules are among his cast of characters. Each class is like a new chapter in a novel.

“I see teaching very much as a formalized act of storytelling,” says Coppola, who is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry at the university. “If you listen to researchers tell you about their research, they don’t launch into the statistical results or the laboratory data. What those scientists are interested in telling you is the story. And I think that storytelling is an endemic part of human nature.”

Teaching organic chemistry lends itself particularly well to the storytelling approach because the material builds on itself, Coppola says. “For the first time, students are exposed to the idea that science is really an extended narrative, and it isn’t just a set of short stories,” he says.

Coppola’s teaching style and his philosophy of education have earned him national recognition. In January, he was awarded the 2012 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, a $250,000 prize from Baylor University to honor an exceptional teacher.

“The relationship that Brian establishes with his students is an important part of the way he teaches,” says Peter J. Alaimo, a former student of Coppola’s and now an associate professor of chemistry at Seattle University. “He had this ability to make me think that, in a class of 700 students, we were having a one-on-one, intimate conversation about chemistry.”

Coppola has two simple ideas for how to improve undergraduate education: “I would make PowerPoint illegal, and I would not permit multiple-choice exams,” he says. “These are completely unimaginative strategies that constrain improvisation.

“Part of storytelling is that it’s very much an improvisation,” he continues. “I’ve probably taught organic chemistry 60 times, and I’ve never done it the same way twice. I see the classroom as a place where one uses the interaction with the students and the feedback you’re getting from them to shape the nature of the discourse.”

Despite the unpredictable nature of Coppola’s lectures, the conversations are anything but random. “I believe in the idea that one has to think quite intentionally about all the decisions that you make in front of a classroom, including the way you talk,” he says. “The way I choose to speak, the jokes that I tell, flipping a cussword every now and then, whatever it happens to be, these are all very deliberate acts just to make sure that it’s clear that I’m just another person and not the figure behind the lectern who creates a distance between him and his students.”

Coppola urges others to find their own voice when it comes to storytelling. “There’s a sense that if you just got my set of notes, that’s all you would need. But you can’t play my notes any more than I can play Beethoven,” he says. “It isn’t the notes. It’s the expression of the notes and what those things mean to me as I think about trying to tell that story and convey that understanding.”

Justin Lomont, a former student and now a doctoral student in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, says he’s adapted Coppola’s style of storytelling to his own teaching approach, which earned him a graduate teaching award. “I definitely try to emulate him in the classroom,” Lomont says.

Coppola says his passion for teaching started at an early age. “In elementary school, I stopped taking recess,” he says. “Instead of going outside, I stayed inside and helped my peers. I was always the one standing at the board.” He credits his own teachers with helping to shape his philosophy of teaching.

Coppola earned a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1978 from the University of New Hampshire and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1984 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Michigan in 1986 and became a full professor in 2001. He served as associate chair of the chemistry department there in 2002–12.

In addition to teaching, Coppola cofounded the IDEA (Instructional Development & Educational Assessment) Institute, which brings together faculty and students from science, math, and education to design new teaching methods. He is also associate director of the University of Michigan-Peking University Joint Institute. He recently returned from a yearlong sabbatical at Peking University, where he taught organic chemistry. He says the Chinese students took well to his storytelling approach.

With the $250,000 prize, Coppola is starting a foundation to support charitable organizations that are trying to improve science education. “I want to use my network of former students to be my eyes and ears around the country and come back to me with examples of good work,” he says.

At the end of the day, Coppola is having fun doing something that he loves. “Brian is one of these people who will never pass up an opportunity to teach someone something,” Alaimo says. “I think in part it’s because it’s so much fun for him and in part because every opportunity he has to teach he sees as an opportunity to learn.” 



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