Chemistry not for the faint of heart
“I teach a second-year quantitative analysis class that students are terrified of,” said chemistry professor Charles Lucy, who was recently awarded the university’s Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
On paper, Lucy says the course seems easy enough: the students are given an unknown sample, a procedure to follow and a result-based grading curve. The only catch is there is absolutely no margin for error.
“For three weeks at the start all we do is teach the students how to handle solution, how to properly weigh something, how to pipette 10 mls of solution, and when we say 10 mls we mean 10.000,” said Lucy, a chemistry professor since 1999, who was held to the same standards when he did a PhD at the U of A in 1983. “The point of the class is to show students how to do something right.”
Lucy says the rationale for the unforgiving nature of the lab stems from the accuracy demanded when real-life issues are on the line.
“If you are wrong, it doesn’t matter why you know you’re wrong later, you’re still wrong,” said Lucy. “It’s one element of science where we can be that rigorous and we can say ‘you have to get the right answer.’
“It doesn’t make that perspective popular, but most of the students at the end of the class appreciate it.”
It’s that appreciation that Lucy cherishes.
“I find the subject interesting and hope to pass that on, not that I hope to convert them to being me,” said Lucy, whose research is less about the chemicals themselves and more about the techniques for separating them. He adds that, although students who take his classes may have career interests that split from chemistry, he still wants his students interested enough in the subject to speak intelligently about it and “become aware of what our techniques can do for [their careers].”
As for how Lucy pushes those techniques, the formula is straightforward: lots of energy and engagement delivered by way of the tried-and-true classroom techniques.
“I detest it when a student does not have a pen in their hand,” said Lucy, who has the same expectations from his first-year chemistry students as those in fourth year. “I have never understood it, but it seems information can hit a student’s eyes, get to their hands and be written down and they actually do remember some of what went through all of that.”
Lucy says the more he can engage students in the materials the better, often using demos or handouts to try to get students to make the subject that much more concrete. “I think I’m fairly upbeat and try to push a lot of energy into the class, not that it is entertaining necessarily, but hopefully it is engaging.”
To this end, Lucy says he takes a great deal of pride in his teaching. When he first started teaching first-year students, he arranged to go out for coffee with the more experienced instructors.
“They certainly set me straight on a few things before I stepped into it too much,” said Lucy, who is a big proponent of the Faculty of Science’s mentoring program.
“I have had peer consultants sit in on my lectures, and I have sat in on other lectures. Often the discussions that you get around teaching give you good ideas and are things that I have incorporated. In my mind, it was quite remarkable to see what a difference just getting some feedback makes and being self-reflective in the classroom.”