Lessons learned from a 43-year long teaching career

Prof. Harold White is an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, and is a proponent and practitioner of problem-based learning (PBL). Presented below is his lecture on the lessons he learned from a 43-year long teaching career at the university, presented on the occassion of his retirement from the institution.

I found Prof. White’s lecture very good food for thought. He makes ten points over the course of his lecture as the lessons he gleaned from his teaching career. Not in the least being impudent here, but somehow all of those ten takeaways seem like things a teacher just ought to know. But then, who am I kidding? As I sat listening to his video, I realised there were things in what he said that I learned only because I taught. Not because I would teach someday.

I went into teaching after a self-imposed sabbatical of teaching myself philosophy. I had workable (even if I say so myself) ambitions of integrating history and philosophy of science in my lectures. I did what I could where I could, given the usual constraint of covering the syllabus in time. But somehow something was still missing. Yes, the students were excited when we discussed atomism or when I boldly declaimed borrowing from Paul Needham: water is not H2O. But it all had to stop at some point in the core classes because the curriculum demanded I focus on something else about the atom or water.

Things were however different when I found myself in the elective courses Research Methodology and Forensic Science that I offered. Yes, I had done research, but no one had taught me Research Methodology as a course. And again yes, I knew the interdisciplinary concepts that went into making forensic science, but again, I had never taken a course in the subject. Consequently, I researched and prepared harder for these elective courses than for my core chemistry courses. Seems funny, but it was in these classes I began to realise how one topic can be taught in different ways. Pedagogy – that word began to make sense when we discussed Jane Goodall with her chimps in the Kenyan jungles, and when O. J. Simpson’s Italian shoes steered the direction of the class proceedings in our discussion on footwear impressions. But even then, these were mere case studies to me.

It was only recently through the works of Rick Moog and Harold White when I was formally introduced to guided enquiry and PBL that realisation dawned. Perhaps most of us as teachers are already adopting concepts from educational research without knowing that it’s a thing. But then, yes, having been exposed to the concept, I did realise directions I had not taken simply because I didn’t know they would lead somewhere. It is only now with hindsight that I know that O. J. Simpson’s case would be a classic contender to set up a PBL in Forensic Science. I did a case study, but a PBL session would have been so much more engaging.

Richard Feynman once said philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. And I did see this general attitude towards (history and) philosophy of science being reflected by some colleagues during my postdoc and also while I taught. Education research too seems to suffer the same fate. I feel sad, and I feel bad. In our bid for more and more narrowly focussed specialisations, we have forgotten that a good education is to make us think. History and philosophy and sociology and literature have much to offer to (and take from) science if we’d just open our eyes and really observe.

Video source: http://www1.udel.edu/chem/white/Talks.html


Philosopher’s Wool and a Walk Down Chemistry Lane

Zinc oxide is philosopher’s wool. It is formed when zinc burns in air. The white fumes that form as a result of this burning produce a wool like substance, earning it the epithet – philosopher’s wool.

I went on Google Books to find some early references of the oxide, and what I found thrilled me.

The first is a treatise titled Chemical Instructor: Presenting a Familiar Method of Teaching the Chemical Principles and Operations of the Most Practical Utility to Farmers, Mechanics, Housekeepers and Physicians and Most Interesting to Clergymen and Lawyers. Intended for Schools and Popular Class-room by Amos Eaton. This was published in 1822. Eaton famously co-founded the Rensselaer School for ‘the application of science to the common purposes of life’ and was an advocate for the inclusion of women in science.

The following is an image from his treatise on Google Books describing the classroom demonstration of the preparation of philosopher’s wool.


And the following are two rather telling highlights from the Preface of the same treatise.

Here’s another book titled Chemical experiments : illustrating the theory, practice, and application of the science of chemistry, and containing the properties, uses, manufacture, purification, and analysis of all inorganic substances : with numerous engravings of apparatus, etc. by G. Francis. This was published in 1842.

The very first paragraph of the Preface here reads:

The Chemist and Druggist will find in this small book the best method of manufacturing every chemical substance which he is likely to want. The Lecturer will recognize the most remarkable properties of them all, clearly pointed out by such experiments as are easy and striking. The Student will be able to refer to and to repeat the experiments of the classroom with facility. The Manufacturer will find the economical principles of his trade illustrated and the best receipts for his articles given. While he who seeks amusement only will have a wide field before him, from which he may cull the choicest flowers; and should his means be limited, or his residence remote from cities, still little impediment will arise on this account, as one portion of the book assists the other; one experiment explains the manufacture of that substance of which other experiments explain the nature.

Sample this first page from the Introduction chapter which talks of chemistry in those days, which was a part of Natural Philosophy.

And here’s the combustion of zinc described in the form of a laboratory experiment rather than as a demonstration in the previous treatise.

Reading such texts, how can one miss the romantic appeal of chemistry? I hope more and more chemistry (science) educators take it upon themselves to incorporate such examples from the history of chemistry (science) to enthuse students towards the subject, and to inculcate in them an understanding and appreciation of the development of the subject.

PS. Here’s a poem by Brian Culhane titled Philosopher’s Wool from Able Muse, Winter 2009 issue.

Images from Google Books and archive.org

Exothermic and Endothermic Reactions – an Assignment OER

Someone in the know started teaching middle school chemistry about an year ago. A few months into the job, she needed help with her unit on exothermic and endothermic reactions. She specifically needed a classroom assignment to gauge her students’ understanding of the unit. The following is what I came up with to help her meet her goal.

This file lay dormant in my folder since then. I thought it would make a good post on day ‘E’ of the A to Z blog challenge.

Chemists, chemistry educators and you fine people – what do you think of the assignment?

Rose is a rose is a woody perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa in the family Rosaceae.

Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Gertrude Stein

rose (n) : any of a genus (Rosa of the family Rosaceae, the rose family) of usually prickly shrubs with pinnate leaves and showy flowers having five petals in the wild state but being often double or partly double under cultivation.


I am currently reading A. K. Ramanujan’s Collected Poems. It was therefore with great interest that I read Guillermo Rodriguez’s interview in The Hindu yesterday where he talks about Ramanujan’s poetry. Rodriguez’s PhD is on the latter’s poetry.

This following piece in the interview immediately sent me scurrying to the book to fish for the poem that follows. My mind raced to the connections between science and poetry, despite the wide chasm between the two. But more on it in a later post. Right now, I am particularly thinking about using poetry to teach science.

First, the interview excerpt.

Ramanujan studied the physical sciences during his undergraduate days. And, one of his last lecture drafts noted “that the opposition between poetry and science…was abhorrent” to him. How did science matter for his own poetry?

Ramanujan inherited his interest in science from his father who was a famous mathematician. After becoming a professor of English, this natural inclination was satiated by his study of linguistics, first in Pune in 1958 and later in the U.S. Linguistics, the science of language, had a heavy impact on literary studies in those years, and it became an indispensable tool in his method as a poet and pioneering translator of Dravidian classics. As a linguist, he was trained to see poems as objects and treated them in a clinical manner, dissecting their parts.

… see poems as objects and treated them in a clinical manner, dissecting their parts. That’s a scientist’s mind all right!

The poem now, from the book.

KMnO4 in water. Diffusion. Paying attention.

KMnO4 in water. Diffusion. Paying attention.

It’s a visually rich poem. On a fundamental topic in science: diffusion.

We as science teachers, do demonstrations where possible. They are  better than the chalk-and-board teaching method. I suppose what’d still be better would be to bring poetry into the science classrooms. I myself haven’t done it yet, but that’s only because I haven’t found the right poems for the courses I teach. And yes, there’s also the attendant factor of not all students being enthused by the idea of poetry in a science class. But then, I for one, think poetry is for everyone. But no, not one for foisting my ideas on others, I just think there is a way to bring science and poetry together in science education. And I haven’t found it yet.

While science begins in wonder, and to borrow from Robert Frost, poetry begins as a lump in the throat, both invariably lead to one place: truth. Both take long, uncertain paths, but both ennoble us with their beauty and knowledge. Both are emancipating.

So, yes. Poetry in a science class. I am in. With the realisation that it’s hard work.

PS. Here’s something I wrote. No, it can’t be used to teach the Bessemer process, but we don’t always do science or write poems because of a studied necessity. Call it a creative urge; something inexplicable. And there are times when one lives from one such urge to the other, satisfying it one at a time.


a steel spoon
scrapes the sides
a steel bowl.

the tongue
the teeth
the stomach
cry in unison:

oh bessemer,
why did you…?

An eye for types of research. And a nose for a research question.

The following is an exercise that I had my students do after explaining to them the different types of research. Over the years, I have enjoyed my Research Methodology classes the best, but this particular section on types of research proves to be the one where I have done well to throw my students’ minds up and over and beyond a bar, and made them go after their minds. This is the session where Jane Goodall, nanoparticle synthesis and Rajinikanth (for the first time this year) all enter my classroom in a bid to expand my students’ minds and make explicit the different kinds of research.

The second exercise in the Exercise Sheet was intended to make the students look for research questions in the news pieces they normally read.

The same file in MS-Word format can be downloaded here: types-of-research.

Un-jargonising jargon

The 8th point of discussion in our 17 Views of Research is as under:

Research involves a lot of jargon.

To explain what jargon is, I had another little exercise sheet with me. This sheet contained abstracts of three research articles. I chose these three abstracts with a specific reason in mind. The first abstract (which is not an abstract per se, but the opening paragraph of the article) is from Current Science. As the name indicates, the journal publishes results from all disciplines in science. The USP for choosing this ‘abstract’ was that it contained terms (protein content, total N, colorimetry, near infrared reflectance spectroscopy) that a Chemistry student could definitely make sense of. The second abstract is from Journal of Physical Chemistry B. But this particular research pertains to Monte Carlo Simulations, which is a rather rarefied domain in Chemistry research. The third abstract is from a Mathematical journal, and was chosen for a non-Chemistry point of view, while not being completely divorced from Science.

The idea was to present this exercise sheet to the students, have them read the abstracts and write a very brief note on what they understood in there. But the way it turned out in class was that I ended up reading the abstracts to them, and the students  then came up with their verbal impressions of the abstracts.

In their attempts to verbalise the abstract content, the students were in essence simplifying the technical discipline-specific terms into everyday language. With a little help from me on what Monte Carlo Simulations entailed, the students could un-jargonise the second abstract as well.

We didn’t have much success with un-jargonising the third abstract, except for getting a general idea of what the research was about. This was precisely my intention to enable them to understand that jargon is discipline-specific.



The Exercise Sheet used in class can be downloaded here: jargon – abstract


Artificial Radioactivity

The final screencast that I made for my Nuclear Chemistry class was on Artificial Radioactivity. The same is linked here.


The screencast and the quiz that followed it was administered in the same way as described here.

The quiz this time around isn’t objective. Here it follows. Nuclear Chemistry Quiz 2