Thoughts by Richard Bleil
One of the main problems with teaching is that, although I very much wish to make a difference, there usually is little evidence that I actually do. Our students move, get jobs or continue their education and rarely do we get to see the fruits of our labors. But every once in a while, we get lucky.
For example, I love turning my students into confident, independent and critical thinkers. Some might call young people with such attitudes “Smart Aleks” (or worse), but I love it. When I taught in South Dakota, I was the only teacher in chemistry, and was responsible for teaching all chemistry courses in a four year program (general chemistry and lab, organic chemistry and lab, analytical chemistry and lab, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, biochemistry, and capstone experiences). This was incredibly challenging, but at the same time it allowed me to do things many professors never can. For example, it’s common to develop course objectives for students, but I also got to develop program objectives for my students. I thought about the students coming in from high school, the “picture” of the traditional student, and I thought about those graduating the program. How did I want them to change? What traits could I teach them that would mark them as a Bleil graduate?
Those traits included independent thinking, critical thinking, and the courage to ask questions and state opinion. On occasion this would backfire on me, but always in a manner that delighted me to my soul. I had one of my students walk into my office wearing a grin that almost couldn’t fit through the door. She was apparently taking a microbiology course, and they were doing swabs for bacteria, a very common experiment for this course. Apparently, she irritated the professor teaching the course by asking a very simple and logical question; what constitutes the “blank” for the experiment? My student understood the purpose of the “blank”; to prove that there are no contaminants that can affect the results. In the microbiology experiment, a blank, for example, would show there was no contamination on the petri dishes or agar gel. Unfortunately, this professor, rather than simply adjusting the experiment to incorporate a blank or answering the question as to why one was not needed, she opted to become irritated at the student. She was very proud for having irritated this less-than-liked professor, and I was proud of her to think of the question and the courage to ask.
More recently, I have been teaching a physical chemistry course. I love physical chemistry because it reveals the “cracks” that students don’t usually see in their first-year science courses. I’ve heard it said that teaching is the art of lying without doing any real harm. In chemistry, we present a pretty picture of the discipline, a lovely completeness all wrapped up in a pretty bow. But there are huge gaping errors if you know where to look, like a two-dimensional being finally thinking to look up. In physical chemistry, where we examine the laws of all that happens (chemistry and everywhere else including as you read this blog) we begin to realize that there are gaps.
We started off with the gas laws. In a first-year chemistry course, we usually begin with the “ideal gas law”, and in a course like the one I teach we generally leave it there. This year, I covered the entirety of the gas laws in little more than two lectures. In my physical chemistry course, this topic lasted a couple of weeks as we described the differences between real gases and ideal gases, corrections to the ideal gas laws and applications of the gas laws that are well beyond the material covered in a first year course.
One of my students, as it turns out, also works in the tutor center. Last week, as we were waiting for class to begin, she said to me that she knows that I have an exam coming up. Apparently, my students have been showing up for extra help (it’s fair and legitimate; maybe the approach of this rather talented young tutor might make more sense than mine). Then she said something that made me literally belly laugh. Paraphrasing here, she said that it’s all she can do to keep quiet and not tell the students just how much more there are to gas laws than what they’re doing.
If this student happens to read this blog, all I can say is, welcome to the world of education. To teach, you really should understand the subject matter to a deeper level than you teach. This is why we don’t have fourth graders teaching the third grade. With deeper knowledge, you’re more confident in what you teach, you provide a richer experience for the students, you have greater confidence in what you’re teaching and most importantly, you begin to understand why you teach what you do and, more importantly, why you leave out what they don’t yet need, or are not quite ready for. In my first-year chemistry course, I teach the breadth of chemistry, but don’t even begin to touch on the depth. What my physical chemistry student told me wasn’t just that she was aware of how much more there was to the subject, but more than that, she told me that what I was teaching her in the upper level physical chemistry course was getting through to her. Somehow, against all odds, I think I won.