Acorns — March 16, 2017

Acorns

Mighty oaks from small acorns grow.

Sometimes I get sidetracked by all of the meetings and the checklists and the hoops to jump through.  I forget that I’m really in the oak tree business.  Or more specifically, I’m in the oak tree business, but I work with the acorns.  First and foremost, I am a teacher.

The hard part about working with acorns is that I don’t always get to see how they turn out as trees.  It can be exhausting to give so much emotionally and see so little progress.  And some acorns don’t want to do the work it takes to transform into mighty oaks.

But it’s worth it anyway.

 

Failure — June 3, 2016

Failure

“Through my experiences with Dr. Young, I have learned a skill, which I will take with me for the rest of my life–failure is an excellent opportunity to learn about yourself and to reshape how you consider the world around you.”

-Centre College student

Novices — March 31, 2016

Novices

As I switch back and forth among different levels of students as the terms pass–this is my ninth term, you know–I am starting to see the differences among the novice learners and the experienced learners.

My novice learners value quantity over quality.  More problems, more examples, more explanations.  Specifically, they are rely on me to structure which problems, which examples, which explanations.  They still think that their homework is just a checklist rather than a lifestyle.  Perhaps all of the resistance to talking to and with the other students is fear that they will reveal how little they know.  They are but small and scared.  One student commented that my class should stop working in groups because it takes too long to get comfortable, as though comfort were requisite for learning.  However, I sometimes catch glimmers of growth where my students see that all of this would make sense if they could just find the right list or table or diagram that put it all together.  Because they are novices, they think that I have this magical diagram secreted in a .pdf somewhere and that if I would just deign to show them that they would be over the hill.  Review, review, review they say.

What my more experienced learners know is that the magical system for all of this doesn’t exist.  Or it exists, but only inside of oneself and that it is different for each of us.  They know that real, durable learning requires admitting that you are uncomfortable, that the ideas don’t all sit right together for you.  The experienced learner recognizes that the homework and the extra problems and the tutoring and the review session are never enough because the depth and breadth of human knowledge are such that the task of learning will never be finished.  The experienced learners blame themselves when they don’t understand, not me.  The experienced learners recognize how unimportant the teacher really is, except as an example of a more experienced learner.

And I admit that I get a little annoyed by the novice learners because they are focused on the unimportant parts.  I apostrophize: I’ve done so much for you, almost everything you’ve asked, except for what I know is wrong for you.  Why is this not enough?  Why don’t you like me for all of this?

Perhaps, when it comes to teaching, and I am yet a nervous novice myself.

My Favorite Class — August 21, 2015

My Favorite Class

Every class I teach is my favorite.

In our collective preparation for the coming semester, I’ve been talking a lot about what we did in CHE 131 last spring. After these conversations with my colleagues, I’ve been a little disappointed not to be teaching general chemistry this fall. (Well, just the lab.)  I’ll miss all of the clicker questions and the discussion of the early experiments and the fun that we have in those courses.  I’ll miss having first year students, so fresh and impressionable.

But then again, I know that come January, I’ll miss teaching inorganic. I’ll miss teaching those senior students how to think like chemists. I’ll miss the great slate of lab experiments we get to do. I’ve really been enjoying reading Symmetry and Spectroscopy by Harris and Bertolucci so that I can be better at explaining symmetry, and I’ll miss that when this year’s class is over.  And each February, I’ve always been sad that we don’t teach first-year studies every semester and that I don’t get to obsess about hydroelectricity any more.  I’m sad at the end of the spring that classes are over and then at the end of the summer when my research students go home.

I suppose it is not all bad that I enjoy whatever I’m in at the moment. I need to keep my perspective balanced between past, present, and future, because most of it is good!

Take comfort that if you’re in my class, you’re also in my favorite class.

Lists and lists and lists — July 14, 2015

Lists and lists and lists

One discipline I try to maintain is a to-do list journal (of sorts).  I keep a yellow composition notebook on my desk that is full of dated scribbles, my lists of tasks for a particular week, broken down by day.  Alongside the to-do lists are notes of phone calls and meetings as well as the occasional brainstorming session about my mid-probationary dossier or what I’m going to teach in inorganic.  I’m not sure if I make these lists so that I don’t forget what I’m supposed to do or as a way of discovering what I should be doing.

I began this habit in graduate school on a steno pad.  Each day before I left, I tried to write down what I should do the next morning.  I admit that my discipline is not iron-clad.  Especially during the darker times in the middle of my PhD where I mostly stared at my desk. However, I think those steno pads saved me many mornings of wondering what I should be doing with my vast, unstructured time.

You will also find evidence of my experiments with the pomodoro technique and the Eisenhower decision matrix but mostly my book is filled with lists and lists and lists.

What I want my research students to learn — July 2, 2015

What I want my research students to learn

Most of what my research students learn about research is that it is frustrating and nothing works and nothing makes sense.  They learn that instruments break.  They learn to hate column chromatography.  They learn that summer research is full of long hours standing in the lab not really sure what to do next.  Unfortunately, they sometimes learn that I do not always have the time/energy/patience/knowledge/experience to help them over the next hurdle.

But what I want my students to learn is:

  1. Do the critical experiment first.  Test the fundamental idea to see if it works, but then immediately do the control experiments before you get too excited.
  2. Repeat everything at least three times to avoid chasing ghosts.
  3. Designing a good experiment takes at least two tries.  There is always something you will forget.  See Rule #2.
  4. Each contribution to human knowledge is important, even if it is tiny.  We are the experts on the things that we are seeing.  No we don’t know what we’re doing.  This is incredibly scary and is an incredible responsibility.  But it is also awesome.  This is what Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”
  5. Catalysis is all about walking up to the edge without falling off.  A good catalyst is inherently labile because it is good at reacting.  This means that we expect a lot of your synthetic skills.
  6. When you see something and say “that’s weird…” write it down rather than ignoring it.  Sometimes things that don’t make sense have to marinate for a little while.  See Rule #8.
  7. Catalysis is plagued by the fact that the complex you put in as “the catalyst” can change.  The catalyst precursor is not always the active species.  See Rule #1.
  8. If your theory/interpretation explains all of the data but one, then you have the wrong theory.
  9. A publishable research project has a moment that I call The Turn.  This is the critical piece of data, the important observation that forms the heart of a scientific publication.  The Turn is like an egg we want to hatch, so all of our efforts go in to building the nest around the egg, wrestling all the details into a coherent, defendable whole to keep our idea warm.  I hope you each get to see The Turn at some point so that you learn to recognize it. See Rule #1.
  10. It is so much more fun to watch you, my dear students, than to do this myself.  Science is not a lonely profession, despite the stereotypes.  I need you to tolerate the ambiguity, to argue over the results, to ride out the mishaps, and to celebrate the new discoveries with me.  See #4.
Why I do collaborative research with undergraduate students — June 1, 2015

Why I do collaborative research with undergraduate students

I do research with undergraduates because

  • Undergraduate research inspired me to be a chemist.
  • I believe that the skills required in research (recall, synthesis) improve a student’s understanding of molecular processes better than any other tool I have to offer (Make it Stick)
  • Laboratory alone cannot teach students what it is like to be a chemist.  There is not enough time and the student/instructor ratio is too high.
  • The collaborative student/professor relationship opens the door for long-term mentoring relationships.
  • I love the facial expressions and voice inflections of students when they make connections
  • I want to share the pleasure of finding things out (Feynman)

No, my students don’t know everything they need to know to be independent.  I don’t expect them to be independent for more than a few hours at a time.

Yes, it would be faster if I did it myself.  But I really truly mean what I say that publishing is only a natural outcome of the teaching process and not the goal in itself.  Unfortunately, I won’t get to teach every student how to publish a paper, but I will get to teach more students about the research process.

I work with students so that I can provide a deep and meaningful insight into chemistry (why) by working side-by-side with students, ideally over several years (how) on projects related to oxidation catalysis with manganese and iron (what).  The what makes no sense without the why.