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Shaking Up The Status Quo

Chemistry professors enliven their lectures by helping students see real-world connections

by Linda Wang
September 10, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 37

Credit: Benjamin Munson
Bookstaver’s enthusiasm for chemistry rubs off on his students.
John Bookstaver stands in a teaching lab with several students working in the background.
Credit: Benjamin Munson
Bookstaver’s enthusiasm for chemistry rubs off on his students.

With research, grant writing, and myriad other commitments, chemistry faculty who also have heavy teaching loads may find it tempting to turn to the same lecture notes they’ve been using year after year.

“It’s hard; more and more is getting asked of us each year,” says Anne McCoy, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio State University. “It’s a lot easier to continue to do what you’ve always been doing, and so finding ways to force yourself to get out of that easy, comfortable place is the biggest challenge.”

But when the U.S. is struggling to maintain its global competitiveness in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, professors may need to shake up the status quo to spur undergraduate engagement and motivate students to continue in the sciences. To inspire students, some chemistry professors are integrating cutting-edge research into their lectures. Others are using videos to add spice to a lecture or webcasts to free up lecture time for problem solving. Still others are using current events to draw connections between chemistry concepts and students’ everyday lives.

“It’s part of our mission in education to make sure that the students are well-rounded and understand the implications of what we’re teaching them,” says Raymond E. Schaak, professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania State University. When professors integrate real-world examples, students “start seeing the connections between the classroom lecture material and the things that will impact their daily lives.”

At Stanford University, chemistry professor Paul A. Wender starts each of his organic chemistry lectures with examples of current research discoveries. “I have a slide where I try to capture news of the day, and all of a sudden students go from learning something that might seem fairly abstract or esoteric to, ‘Wow, I see the connection. Now I’m more excited about the subject matter,’ ” he says. “And if the students are more excited, they’re going to learn more, and they’re going to retain it for longer periods of time.”

“We need to do a better job in teaching chemistry,” says Catherine L. Drennan, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of chemistry and biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I think it’s important to think about how we’re teaching chemistry and really discuss what we should be doing and what the best practices are.”

Drennan believes that one of the biggest problems with chemistry education is that subjects are often taught in isolation. “Everyone recognizes that in research, people have become so much more interdisciplinary,” she says. “Yet in the classroom, that’s been much slower, and people are still teaching things in a vacuum, as if the knowledge that students are learning doesn’t really relate to anything else.”

Wender concurs. “I think far too often, we don’t nail concepts down with multiple connections. We just basically give people information, and they connect it to one thing, and that’s a tenuous connection,” he says. Far better, he suggests, is to “learn things in context. And the more connections we can make with our context, the more likely it is that we’re going to retain that information.”

Credit: Rod Searcey
Wender (right) believes that chemistry shouldn’t be taught in isolation. Here, he’s shown with students Jessica Vargas (left) and Erika Geihe Stanzl.
Jessica Vargas (from left), Erika Geihe Stanzl, & Paul Wender.
Credit: Rod Searcey
Wender (right) believes that chemistry shouldn’t be taught in isolation. Here, he’s shown with students Jessica Vargas (left) and Erika Geihe Stanzl.

Instead of using a standard textbook in his “Principles of Inorganic Chemistry I” course at MIT, chemistry professor Christopher C. (Kit) Cummins assigns readings from the chemical literature, and he makes the links to individual research papers available on his course website. “For each lecture, I select original sources for students to read so that they’re seeing where the information is actually coming from on the research side of things,” he says. “I can tailor the content of their readings for each individual lecture with great precision and control so I’m not constrained to the flow of any particular textbook.

“What this does is give those students who are extra motivated a direct connection to where the principles are drawn from, and it familiarizes them with how to actually use the chemical literature at an earlier age,” he continues.

Penn State’s Schaak says he keeps a folder to which he routinely adds interesting research articles or news items that he wants to incorporate into his classroom lectures. Sometimes, he’ll even have students pick out research papers that interest them. “I think the main point is just not going on autopilot but being open to observation,” he says.

Schaak acknowledges that he doesn’t always know all the answers to students’ questions. “I’m not afraid to tell my students, ‘Look, this is an area I don’t know too much about,’ ” he says. “I’m willing to go places that I may not be an expert in with the disclaimer that I’m not an expert here, but then they see that you’re exploring it with them, and it gives them the true picture that science is not a closed book. There’s a lot that we don’t know.”

Stanford’s Wender often draws inspiration for his lectures from his own research. “The magic to dealing with a busy schedule is to create ‘twofers’ or better yet ‘multifers,’ meaning use a one-time investment to address two or more goals,” he says. “For example, what we learn in our research, when directly inserted into my undergraduate lectures, gives students real-time exposure to ideas and plans that often have not even been published. Thus rather than falling behind because of an overcommitted schedule, one can actually produce lectures that are ahead of their time as they anticipate what will be the published literature of the future.”

Other time-saving techniques are available to professors who must balance a heavy teaching load with an active research program. For example, Drennan and her colleagues have produced a series of two- to five-minute videos for professors seeking to integrate real-world examples into their lectures. The videos feature graduate students, postdocs, and faculty describing how they use basic chemical principles in their research and what the practical applications are. Chemistry faculty at MIT are already using these videos to supplement their lectures, and the videos will be available later this year to non-MIT chemistry faculty through MIT OpenCourseWare, a website providing free access to MIT course content.

“You don’t have to redo all 50 minutes of your lecture to get students excited,” Drennan says. “If you add two minutes that explain why something is interesting or get people connected to the material, two of the 50 minutes is all you need to have a really huge impact.”

Studies by MIT’s Teaching & Learning Laboratory show that students find the chemistry videos inspiring and motivating. Particularly for female students, the short videos have “a huge impact on their enthusiasm for the field of chemistry,” Drennan says. “Some of these innovative changes I think could help change the gender dynamics of people who continue in chemistry.”

Credit: Robert E. Klein/AP/HHMI
Drennan is developing videos that will be available on MIT OpenCourseWare.
Catherine Drennan
Credit: Robert E. Klein/AP/HHMI
Drennan is developing videos that will be available on MIT OpenCourseWare.

Elsewhere, a teaching model called the flipped classroom is gaining ground. In a flipped classroom, traditional lecture material is delivered online and classroom time is saved for discussion and problem solving.

“The time that we used to spend lecturing can now be spent helping students become better problem solvers,” says Jeffrey S. Moore, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who uses the technique to teach a course on organic chemistry for nonmajors. Moore has produced six-minute webcasts covering the course material, and students watch the assigned webcasts before coming to class. That leaves the classroom time for discussing and working through problems.

“I believe that the most important thing we teach our students at this level is not the subject of organic chemistry but the problem-solving skills that organic chemistry happens to be great at teaching,” Moore says. “What you really hope is that you are teaching fundamental concepts that will allow them to address contemporary problems.”

In New Rochelle, N.Y., meanwhile, Sunghee Lee, an associate professor of chemistry at Iona College, takes a different approach. Believing it’s never too early for students to do research, on the first day of class, Lee describes to freshman-level general chemistry students her research on chemical phenomena in microdroplets. Then she invites anyone interested in working in her lab to see her after class. “Research is not something that, once you become a junior or senior, you start to get involved, but rather you can start from day one,” she says. Lee currently has 15 undergraduates in her lab, with three or four students from each grade level.

Students don’t need to join Lee’s lab to be exposed to her research, however. She often invites students from her course to tour her lab, and she brings new findings to the classroom to convey chemical concepts such as supersaturation and solubility phenomena. As a result, students perceive Lee as not only a teacher but also an active researcher. “They see the enthusiasm that surrounds the research I do every day, and that’s one of the most valuable lessons the students can acquire,” Lee says. “When students are excited by faculty members, they really gain a deeper understanding of the life of a scientist.”

Credit: Dawn Insanalli
At Iona College, Lee (left) encourages her students to participate in undergraduate research.
Sunghee Lee of Iona College instructs two students working on a computer.
Credit: Dawn Insanalli
At Iona College, Lee (left) encourages her students to participate in undergraduate research.

Contemporary research can also be integrated in exams, as Brian C. Goess, an associate professor of chemistry at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., does to help students see the relevance of what they’re learning. “Over half of my exam questions are based on recent research discoveries,” he says. “The questions themselves lead students through the research discovery, asking them all sorts of conceptual and mechanistic questions along the way.

“On the answer key, you just put a link to the journal article that fully describes the question they worked through and they’ll go and they’ll read it, and they can see for themselves that they were able to, on their own, understand this research,” he continues. “My hope is that students leave with a fearlessness about their ability to go out and to understand cutting-edge research at the interface of chemistry and biology.”

Goess keeps current by engaging in professional development activities. This semester, Goess will be taking a sabbatical to do research at Northwestern University, and in the spring, he’ll be a visiting scientist at a large pharmaceutical company. “If you want to stay cutting edge, you’ve got to use your sabbaticals wisely,” he says. “Go put yourself in situations that force you to hone the cutting edge.”

Keeping current with new research and integrating it into the classroom experience can be especially challenging at a two-year college. John D. Bookstaver, a chemistry professor at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Mo., says that spending his limited professional development funds on subscriptions to journals such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society or the Journal of Organic Chemistry can take resources away from other activities such as attending scientific meetings. “It really takes a commitment on the part of somebody at a two-year school to overcome the hurdles that it takes to continue learning,” he says.

“While doing literature searches is a challenge at a place like ours, there are ways to find things” that keep the students and faculty interested and keep the faculty from getting stale, he says. For example, he attends his ACS local section’s chromatography discussion group and also attends regional and national meetings when he can. He also makes use of resources such as libraries and public seminars at nearby universities.

Often, however, the simplest way to inspire students is to connect with them on a personal level, Bookstaver says. “You have to project a real interest and love for the material, and if you can do that, then they’ll connect with you and with the subject matter,” he says. “We need this generation of students to be excited about science. It’s hard enough to get students into these classes, so retaining them in the field takes some passion on the part of the practitioners.”

If you’re passionate about education, you’ll find the time to improve your teaching, Wender says. “If you love what you’re doing, and if you really want to help students, you’re going to succeed in the classroom because students pick up on that,” he says. “If you’re motivated by wanting to share the excitement you have for a field and wanting to help others, you’re going to find ways of using your schedule, no matter how crazy it is, toward those ends because that’s what motivates you.”


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