A Different Kind of Teaching

shho, www.sxc.hu
© shho, http://www.sxc.hu

Last week I met Francis Edward Su, a Mathematician who is on sabbatical in Cambridge. I have written recently about the challenges of teaching science (in Questioning, and Ignorance). Su has a PhD from Harvard, is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and is the President-Elect of the Mathematical Association of America, so he could be tempted to take himself too seriously to teach well. Teaching takes time, and students ask too many questions, but Su has given himself to his students in a way that recently won him an award.

According to Francis, giving an acceptance speech for a teaching award is a bit intimidating – people expect you to do something extraordinary (or at least keep them awake). Rather than reel off a list of teaching tips he decided to focus on just one, explaining what motivates him to teach well. His talk had such an impact on his colleagues that it’s Continue reading


Piotr Lewandowski, www.sxc.hu
© Piotr Lewandowski, http://www.sxc.hu

To follow on from my post about asking questions, I’ve been thinking about how much we don’t know. Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist from Columbia University, has written a book called Ignorance: How it drives science.[1] In Ignorance, Firestein describes how he loved lab science, but found teaching undergraduates a bit of a struggle. The problem was that he spent the whole time teaching what was known, filling the students’ brains with knowledge. He had forgotten that as well as following the textbook, he could highlight the gaps in knowledge or the rival theories, showing where the opportunities are for young researchers to push back the boundaries themselves. Those are the really interesting parts. Continue reading


Bensik Imeri, www.sxc.hu
© Bensik Imeri, http://www.sxc.hu

When I was a PhD student in Edinburgh I went to a church that was located conveniently next to a number of good pubs. A bunch of us used to pile into one of these establishments after the Sunday evening service. The ensuing conversation ranged from ‘Who are you?’ (it was a big church), to discussions of the sermon we had just heard and other more philosophical issues. One evening I sat next to a photography student, and when I introduced myself as a PhD student in genetics she said something along the lines of, ‘All those facts and figures are not for me, I’m an arts student.’  Rather than just moving on, which would have been infinitely easier, I tried to explain why I thought science was interesting. I think I won, but you can judge for yourself.

We started out by talking about textbooks. No matter how well written one of these tomes might be or how lavish its illustrations, it’s unlikely to make it onto anyone’s bedside table unless it’s exam time. I pointed out that textbooks have their place – a student has to get up to speed in their chosen field – but by the very nature of science they’re out of date before they’re printed. Continue reading

Learning to fly

© John Nyberg, freeimages.com
© John Nyberg, freeimages.com

This is the second of two posts from an interview with Shannon Stahl, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I love the (slightly) in-depth description of his work, and how that ties in with his wonder at the creativity of chemistry.

I see my work in chemistry as a gift and a vocational calling, and there is an intrinsic joy of participating in this discovery process.

To scientists, engineering can be a dirty word, but there is an element of engineering associated with chemistry. The components – the atoms – are known, as well as a basic framework of chemical reactivity, but there are things that you can’t do yet. It’s not unlike an engineering problem. You need to build an airplane so that you can fly. You have the components, but how do you solve the technical challenges?  There’s a beauty about actually getting off the ground and flying. In this sense, I really enjoy the “engineering” aspects of chemistry. One can learn the basic laws of nature that govern chemical reactivity and combine the chemical building blocks together in unique ways to achieve unprecedented phenomena.

When I teach undergraduate students I present them with what’s known already – they learn it, and then take an exam and regurgitate it. But when I train PhD students, the challenge is to get them to appreciate that they’re there to ask the questions. They have to ask, ‘What is not known?’ and ‘What is it that I would like to do, that no one has done before?’ They embark on a journey of taking what they do know and beginning to approach those unknowns. It’s about pushing beyond that template that they’ve been given. And it’s the unknown becoming known that is just so exhilarating for me as a scientist.

Take for example oxygen, which is ‘my’ molecule – it’s what I live and breathe, figuratively and literally! Oxygen is an amazing molecule, and there are fascinating aspects of its chemistry. According to the laws of thermodynamics, my body should spontaneously ignite in an oxygen-containing environment, yet something in the chemistry of oxygen provides a kinetic stability (i.e. the chemicals ‘want’ to stay in their current states) so that doesn’t happen.

I spend my time thinking about how to control the chemistry of oxygen in such a way that it can combine with organic molecules to produce useful things like pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry in the US has a big emphasis on green chemistry. For example, a common step often used in the production of pharmaceuticals is to oxidise an alcohol. Historically one would use chemical reagents that produce harmful by-products. But if we use a (reusable) catalyst we can find ways to combine them in such a way that water is the only by-product.

I think that my feelings of awe and wonder when I’m doing chemistry (see previous post) are not unique. Chemistry is at the interface between biology and physics, and there are two different styles of science within chemistry. Among my colleagues are some who are very mathematical and analytically oriented, and others who are much more creativity driven. Everybody experiences the awe but the difference is in how it’s expressed and reflected back. When you’re connected to something that’s beyond yourself – that allows the experience to take on an even bigger meaning.  My own view is that this is part of ‘common grace’. This is something that God has given to all of us as his creation, and what we do with it and how we handle it is part of the calling that we have as people. We can idolise it or we can use it as an act of worship.