As a freshman undergraduate majoring in marine biology, I aspired to be the next Jacques Cousteau. His inspirational television specials, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, fascinated me as a young boy. Seasonally he would take me on a one-hour trip to a world very different from mine. I didn’t know how much I was learning (and I didn’t care) because I was too busy enjoying the show. I also didn’t realize how much teaching was taking place, teaching filled with rich content, passion, enthusiasm, communication, open-ended questions, and speculative thoughts all drawing me under the ocean. In retrospect, this was one of my earliest memories of an academically engaging experience, and it was formative.
A chemistry professor recommended that I consider changing my major to the broader chemistry degree, noting that an undergraduate degree in chemistry is more versatile than marine biology. Graduate school would then serve as an opportunity for greater specialization based on my scientific interests. Majoring in chemistry had never crossed my mind. Why not? No doubt it was because my only experience with chemistry up to that point was during freshman year when I took General Chemistry I and II, a pair of courses with minimal engagement.
Like a tall person being asked if he plays basketball, I grow weary of the reaction from others when they learn that I am a chemistry professor. The comment typically is, “I hated general chemistry when I took it.” After defending my discipline for a number of years, I began to respond more honestly, stating, “I hated it when I took it, too.”
The student-as-consumer, or economic model of education, has drawn much attention in recent years. In this model, the role of the instructor is to open the student’s mind and cram as much stuff in as possible. Then, assess quickly through exams or graded work before anything falls out. It purports to provide a relatively easy and direct measure of education quality. In short, what is the immediate measurable return on the education investment? Learning is then linked to information transfer and memorized facts, but not necessarily knowledge acquisition. But there is so much more to education: the process by how you arrive at answers, the discussion and respectful debate among classmates, and the development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, all coupled to the enthusiasm, positive attitude, and engaged presence of the instructor. These critical components to a learning environment extend beyond more easily measured content-specific objectives and address the value of education in creating a more engaged student, citizen, and member of the work force.Why did I hate it? The learning environment in introductory chemistry (and foundation STEM classes) too often offers minimal engagement coupled with grading metrics that enforce retention of a percentage of memorized facts. That was my learning environment as a freshman. It is remarkable that anyone even cares about or wants to understand chemistry in that setting. I began to realize both the role of the professor as an ambassador for his or her discipline and the importance of engagement for student success and retention within degree plans. If the professor isn’t excited about taking students on a journey through chemistry, then why should the students be? I have also come to appreciate the importance of general chemistry and other large-enrollment introductory math and science courses to the academic mission of the university. These are gateway courses that students must navigate for the university to fully open up to them. Because they are the most important classes taught in math and science departments, they must be taught well for student success and engagement.
Many different approaches to outstanding instruction succeed, and, indeed, many different examples of great teachers exist. But one commonality among these excellent instructors is the attention that they give to academic engagement, using enthusiasm, content, and assignments to draw students into the learning environment as active participants.
“The student-as-consumer idea of education that made chemistry professor John Sibert hate freshman chemistry as a student has caused many of my students to hate math.
I tell my students it’s okay to feel that way – I would hate it, too. But they don’t actually hate the math. They hate the system that taught them, that turned math into something it is not, into methods and memorization they could not enjoy or understand. My main objective in class is to turn this around, to engage my students in creative thinking and the enjoyment of discovering beautiful ideas together with new friends, to bring them to know and love math for what it really is. One of my students wrote at the end of the semester: “This class reminded me of how I used to think about math before it became unenjoyable for me. Now that I actually enjoy it again, I am easily motivated to use mathematics in both my college career and in life.”