Teaching Statement

Success in chemistry requires that students develop mathematical and conceptual understanding of topics, embrace the inquiry-based nature of science, and learn to communicate complex ideas with lucidity and accuracy. In general chemistry, students establish a new vocabulary and a foundation in mathematical manipulations based on chemical equations. Throughout the curriculum, students should also experience the creative nature of scientific research and the importance of communicating experiments and results clearly. I help my students achieve these goals by addressing both quantitative and conceptual understanding while grounding their learning in inquiry and in the larger community beyond the classroom.

Fostering Mathematical and Conceptual Understanding

Students can often master the algorithmic side of chemistry without appreciating the practical implications of their calculations; however, chemistry is not just math with units. To highlight this, I design my problem-sets around real-world examples. I have developed themed mini-case assignments based on flotation devices, carbon emissions and sequestration, and medical malpractice. I also provide explicit opportunities for students to estimate answers before “plugging and chugging,” encourage them to evaluate the plausibility of their answers in context, and emphasize proportional reasoning skills. For example, in a unit on gas laws, my students practice predicting how and why pressure and temperature changes occur inside a pressure cooker or soda can without having specific values to plug in to equations. When we do longer calculations, I provide frequent opportunities for small group practice as an immediate check for novice students, who may falsely equate surface comprehension of an instructor-led example with the deeper understanding needed to solve problems independently. As problems become more complex, I also help my students become proficient in using computer software to complete their calculations. In fact, students in my instrumental analysis class identified the use of Excel in homework as one of the most valuable and transferable aspects of the class.

In parallel with this quantitative problem-solving, I use short answer and writing assignments to build conceptual understanding. In class, homework, and exams, I ask students to explain phenomena, evaluate methods, and predict the results of experiments: Why is it safe to put out a grease fire with baking soda, but not with flour? What separation method would you use to characterize a skunk’s spray, and why? What will happen if I double the amount of fuel in a piston before ignition? Longer writing assignments give students an opportunity to think deeply about specific concepts and to identify weak points in their understanding by working to articulate newly learned ideas. In my instrumental analysis class, students completed 7 writing assignments for our class journal, in which they formed opinions about current issues in analytical chemistry, explained the thought processes they used in problem solving, and interviewed a scientist about their use of instrumentation to achieve research goals.

Grounding Learning in Research and Inquiry

Even beginning students and non-majors should understand that “doing science” means proposing new questions, formulating hypotheses around these questions, and designing experiments to test them. Consequently, I include project- and inquiry-based learning in the teaching laboratory. As a graduate student at Indiana University, I co-developed a problem-based learning module on gold nanoparticle synthesis that incorporates experimental design into a general chemistry laboratory. In my instrumental analysis lab, each group explored the available instrumentation during 8 weeks of guided exercises, then selected a capstone project that utilized a specific instrument. The students wrote a proposal on their plans and spent 3 weeks on a detailed investigation of a real-world sample (e.g. perfume, honey, sunscreen, or tea). We also emphasized the creative nature of scientific research in the lecture portion of class, where we discussed four papers describing the cutting-edge applications of spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, electrochemistry, and separations. I prepared guided reading assignments to scaffold the students’ engagement with these articles, and we spent a class period discussing each manuscript. For each paper, small groups of students became experts on a specific figure or technique and presented that topic to the class to reinforce their understanding.

Undergraduate research experience is critical for any student planning to pursue a career as a professional chemist. I have mentored seven undergraduate researchers and seen firsthand how research-based problem-solving enhances a student’s training. Through undergraduate research, a student gains ownership of a specific scientific question and experiences the creative nature of scientific endeavor. I recently recognized the enduring impact of this experience when a former student contacted me for a recommendation letter for graduate school. After five years in a successful career in science-driven company, he missed the creative outlet of research and decided to pursue a PhD. Undergraduate research also introduces students to the larger scientific community. An undergraduate mentee at Indiana University presented his honors thesis research at an international conference and is now pursuing graduate studies. Similarly, the student who worked with me at North Carolina A&T State University received a travel grant to present a our work at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. These experiences provide valuable professional development and hopefully ignite a lifelong passion for discovery.

Learning by Teaching

Teaching and learning are complementary processes: few activities produce the depth of understanding gained by teaching an idea to someone else. At Indiana University, I was the assistant instructor for a dedicated service learning class in which undergraduates designed chemistry demonstrations, taught them to their classmates, and led them for children at the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club. At North Carolina A&T, I obtained a grant from the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry to incorporate a semester-long service learning project into my instrumental analysis lab. Each lab group partnered with a 5th grade class at a local Greensboro elementary school. My students made two classroom visits to their partner class and hosted the 5th graders on a field trip to A&T’s campus to perform a simulated ELISA assay. These presentations allow students to develop important professional skills and solidify their understanding of technical concepts, but equally important, these experiences foster a spirit of community involvement that is critical to the educating “the whole person.”

I also continue to learn through my own teaching. I am a strong believer in evidence-based teaching, and I frequently refer to articles from the Journal of Chemical Education, the Journal of the Analytical Sciences Digital Library, and the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database to inform my teaching. As an analytical chemist, I make accurate and precise measurements of chemical information, so I am similarly interested in methods to accurately assess student learning and evaluate pedagogical techniques. In addition to my training through SPIRE, I regularly seek out professional development opportunities to improve my teaching. I also seek constructive criticism and evaluations from more experienced teachers and from my students. Throughout the semester, I solicit anonymous feedback from my students and adjust my teaching accordingly. I also reflect on long-term student outcomes, including my students’ success in subsequent courses and professional progress. Ultimately, I measure my success as a teacher as reflected in the personal and professional successes of my students.