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


National Science Day celebrations at the college

We celebrated the National Science Day this year with much enthusiasm. The theme for this year’s National Science Day, as is well known, is Science and Technology for the Specially Abled.

To commemorate the day, we had three competitions for all PG students at the college. The first was – Essay writing in English, the second – Essay writing in Tamil, and the third was what we called ‘Teach a Specially Abled Child’.

The English contest was on the topic: What is the role of science and technology in the lives of the specially abled? The Tamil contest also had the same topic.

For the last contest, we had students come up with innovative ways to teach a concept from science/mathematics from VI to XII grades. The instruction was to ‘teach’ it to a specially abled child. States of matter, the atomic model, Doppler Effect, conductivity, fractions, shapes of geometrical figures — the students took up these and many other topics. And I must say, I honestly was delighted to see them put in the effort to prepare for it in the run up to the day. There was camaraderie, and a sense of contribution to a greater good. I was a happy person at the end of the day.

We had Dr. John Bosco Lourdusamy from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-M and Ms. Surbhi Sethia, Learning Facilitator and Founder Roots – The Foundation, join us on the day. John gave a talk which delved into the real nature of disability, making us all sit up and take note. Late last week and early this week, he gave generously of his time in judging the English essays.

Surbhi talked about the Science of Learning. Being a special educator, she gave us specific helpful comments on the students’ presentations. Late in the afternoon, she engaged the students and the faculty in an interesting and lively presentation, egging us to think of our individual learning styles. Both Surbhi and John served as our judges for the ‘Teach a Special Child’ event. Both of them very graciously also gave away the certificates.

All in all, it was a a great day. It was fun, and it offered loads to learn.

The following is the programme schedule we made for the day.


Will put up a few pictures from the celebrations soon.

Forensic Science Lecture Material – 16 December and 22 December, 2016

Appended below is the PowerPoint file I used in class today. We will be continuing with the same file on 22 December, 2016.

Topics covered here:
How do fingerprints form?
Types of fingerprints
Detection and Visualisation of Latent Fingerprints
Chemical Methods of Development of Latent Fingerprints:

  • Iodine fumigation
  • Silver nitrate method
  • Ninhydrin method
  • Cyanoacrylate (superglue) fuming

The PowerPoint file can be downloaded below.


Short term course in Nanoscience

The Department of Chemistry, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi is organising a short term course in Nanoscience. It is titled: Recent Development in Nanomaterials for Energy and Health Care Applications. The course runs from December 19 – 24, 2016. Details appended below.


Date with Science this Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. (Yes, I peeped.) Here’s how you can get yourself a date with Science for the day, irrespective of whether you veer to this end or to this end of Science-Valentine’s Day amalgam. (No mercury!)

All you need to do is to get yourself to The Music Academy on 14th February, 2016 around 4:00 pm. The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai is organising a series of popular science lectures on the day between 4:00 and 7:30 pm. Going by the schedule, fascinating talks by leading scientists await you.

Here’s the programme poster.

Date with Science this Valentine's Day.

Date with Science this Valentine’s Day.

For more on the event, visit: http://www.imsc.res.in/triveni/

Lecture on Abdul Kalam

Just got to know of this. Doing my good deed of the day: spreading the word around. 🙂

anna univ apj

Source: Anna University

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus to talk at RGNIYD, Sriperumbudur

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus is delivering a lecture titled ‘Turning Unemployment to Entrepreneurship: Motivating Indian Youth for Social Business’ at the Rajiv Gandhi National Institute for Youth Development, Sriperumbudur. The event is on 1st Sep, 2015. It starts at 9:30 am.

Sep 1, 2015. Save the date.

Sep 1, 2015. Save the date.

Image courtesy: RGNIYD.

For more details visit this page.