College represents a time of knowledge acquisition that is more advanced than what the student was exposed to in high school, but at the same time, a student needs to practice hands-on skills that are useful in the comprehension of principles taught in class and that may prepare them to work in an industrial environment, should they choose that path. The excellent schooling, personal student experience, and practical training I received are what I can offer to any student at whatever level of studies. When preparing a course outline, the emphasis should be on the best approach to not only communicate knowledge, but to involve each student in the subject that is taught. The strategy used to involve students who already dislike chemistry is obviously different than the strategy one will use to involve students who will choose to become chemistry majors. Essentially, one needs to work harder, that is smarter, to gain the interest of students who dislike chemistry. The students often complain that they should not have to learn math or chemistry since it is not relevant to their life and choice of education (for non-majors). The creativity of the instructor now comes into play. My approach is based on finding something that these students enjoy doing and relate it to chemistry in order to show them the relevance of chemistry in their life. For example, what is the connection between snowboarding and water chemistry? Obviously, a good time enjoying snowboarding is dependent upon not only the amount of snow, but on the quality of the icy layer present on the snow bank surface (best fast sliding to jump high) and this quality is dependent upon the chemical properties of the water molecule. Of course, this approach must be tailored to each course. The same principle applies to biology majors who are notorious “haters” of organic chemistry. What I observed when I was a student is that biology students memorize “a ton” of reactions without really understanding the mechanisms involved. I realize that most organic chemistry courses must be taught that way because, perhaps, memorizing has been the way these courses have been taught for many years. My approach though is to emphasize “pushing electrons” or the ability to look at the structure of reactants and know how the electrons “flow”. One learns the basic types of reaction mechanisms like SN1 or SN2 for example and learn to recognize and apply how the electrons flow in reactions that are discussed later in the course. I used that approach in my own studies. Moreover, I was able to share with other students how to push electrons, trying to help them benefit from this strategy. Creative approaches work very well with teaching mathematics to show students how applied mathematics solves problems in any science, physical or life-related.
Another idea to keep in mind is to remember what it was like to be a student when you are an instructor. In other words, what did I want from my instructor when sitting in his or her class or what did I expect? If the instructor was not a good teacher, what made him or her, a bad teacher? And inversely, what made a good teacher good? Whether I taught a class or mentored someone, I have always tried to remember these questions because I can avoid pitfalls that would make me a bad teacher or I can practice qualities found in a good instructor. One major pitfall to avoid is talking over the student’s head. Perhaps, as an instructor you understand yourself when you talk about your subject, but do the students? From my own experience, this happened in quantum chemistry which is a subject so abstract that a student can get lost very quickly in the concepts as well as the mathematics required to take the class. When I was taking the class, I was thinking that jumping into the hard concepts immediately in each session was not helpful. My personal approach as a student was to go back to the concepts I had learned in general chemistry, review them, and seeing how these were described at a more advanced level. I learned to explain things to myself clearly this way. The more challenging part was mathematics. It was challenging because a basic question was not answered each time a mathematical exercise was given. Why am I doing this? What is the connection to the concepts I am learning? What is the goal that needs to be attained when solving this problem? In such a difficult class, the instructor must help the students answer these questions and teach them to engage in this type of questioning when encountering problems to be solved. In general, I believe an instructor must demonstrate the art of clear thinking from the beginning, for example how to take apart a problem in order to solve it and what questions should the student ask in order to gain a thorough comprehension of the concepts presented.
An instructor should not assume that every student is the same and take the “easy way out” by catering to the “smart ones” only. Every student is different and some may not make all the connections between all the concepts from the beginning. I saw that in group theory where clearly some students had an advantage over others because they were able to picture in their minds without much effort a molecular structure in 3-D (that was before one had easy access to computer modeling software). I was not part of the ones that possessed this ability in all honesty, but I was determined to be as good as they were. My approach was to get an organic/inorganic modeling kit and practice building ad nauseam any molecule featured in the course and others until I could easily see in my mind’s eye all the symmetry elements. In graduate school, I was able to ace every group theory question as a result. Based on my experience, an instructor, teaching group theory involving picturing symmetry elements or teaching how understanding the structure of a molecule affects its function or its reactivity, can use creative ways to help students “see”. Even in the age of readily accessible computer modeling software, an actual modeling kit can be very useful in modeling small molecules. I have seen people using balloons to picture orbitals. As an instructor, I think that all students can benefit from this type of hands-on approach because it is a concrete way to illustrate abstract concepts. For larger biomolecules, a computer modeling station is of course very useful.
In more advanced classes like biochemistry and biophysics, the challenge is to help students recall their previous acquired knowledge and apply it to build a more advanced understanding of concepts presented. Biochemistry like organic chemistry is a tough class to teach due mostly to the second part that deals with metabolism. It is painful because one must memorize cycles of reactions and structures of reaction cycle intermediates. The pitfall here is the potential lack of connections that is made between these cycles; we need these connections so as to get the “big picture.” Most often, cycles are taught from the bottom up starting with one reaction and adding one after another until the instructor has shown the entire cycle. I found that teaching metabolic cycles must start from the top down while again linking the student’s life with what is being learned. Specifically, talking in general terms about what happens when we eat lipids or sugar is a good start. As a second step, talking about diseases related to lipid or glucose metabolism also helps get a clear picture of which organs are affected. For example, many students may know someone who is diabetic. Contrasting normal and abnormal metabolism helps fix the general ideas in the student’s mind. From that point, the instructor can consistently narrow down the information so as to get to the individual reactions and their intermediates. For review, going from the bottom up works because the student gets used to think about metabolism as connected cycles. As to teaching structural biophysics, I always liked to emphasize the order and complexity of biomolecular structure, which is a type of beauty in itself like admiring a work of art or a type of architecture. Again, actual modeling kits for DNA/RNA or for building peptide chains is fun to use and demonstrate how one can actually measure distances and angles from the molecular scale to our scale without the use of a computer. After that step, using a computer solidifies the student’s comprehension of how biomolecular structure can be modeled and used in simulations for designing binding ligands or studying the binding affinity of protein-protein or protein-nucleic acids complexes while detailing their chemical interactions. Finally, connecting structural topics with details of molecular function helps students putting it all together.
I have the firm belief that a well-taught chemistry student is made by his or her understanding of theory with principles applied to practical experience. Based on personal preferences, the student may choose later to specialize more in theory or in practical applications. However, in my view, an instructor should be interested in helping students achieve self-confidence and self-reliance which aim at solidifying knowledge with comprehension and learning practical skills. This is what I offer.