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.

Letting go — February 18, 2015

Letting go

The hardest thing for me as a teacher is letting go.

Teaching my students about molecules is like teaching a child to ride a bike.  There’s that moment when the young cyclist has almost got it, when my stabilizing hand leaves the back of the bicycle seat.  That’s when learning happens.  If I never let go, my students would likely never fall down; they would feel very secure.  However, they would also never feel the wobble and right themselves, muscles taking note for next time.

I struggle with the student-centered classroom because it seems so messy.  In particular, I struggle with the realization that the students actually know things that I did not tell them. They do not need me to discuss each detail of the course text, to test every possible misconception.  My students do not need me to hold on.  I see the power of JiTT and I know cerebrally that we should spend our class time on things that are difficult–even if they are difficult out of order–rather than on my manicured power point slides.  I guess I worry that I’m not quick enough on my feet or that I will seem disjointed or disorganized when I am not.  I worry that I’ll get stumped without a good example or that only the vocal students will get attention.

When I am an old professor, my slides will be nothing but student questions or figures.  We will spend time only on things that at least one student has indicated is important.  And perhaps there will be a bike at the bottom of the syllabus, to remind me.

Proportionally — February 11, 2015


My general chemistry students rely heavily on proportions as a problem-solving tool, while I tend to use dimensional analysis.  I wonder where this (over)reliance on proportions comes from.  Is this just the way that students coped in their previous science classes? Are proportions more intuitive to students than unit analysis?  Or are high school teachers pushing students to use proportions?

I am divided on whether I should discourage students from their method of choice.  Am I imposing my self-centered problem-solving strategy on already confused students?  Am I out of touch with modern secondary education? I perhaps wouldn’t quibble over methods, except that it seems that my weakest students are the ones who rely most steadfastly on this construction.  And I think that students will find that they are out of their depth when the situation demands more than just a single obvious relationship.