Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why I was able to become a chemist

Paul at one of the premiere chemistry blogs just wrote a post on why he became a chemist. This got me to thinking, "why did I become a chemist?" Well, that got me to thinking about not why I became a chemist, but why was I able to become a chemist.

Sure, having a brain helps. Having parents who encourage you to read instead of watch TV really helps[1]. Having parents who encourage you in general to study and learn really helps.

I always had a natural interest in science. I was amazed at how things worked, natural and man-made. By the third grade I was determined to become a neonatal surgeon. Obscure choice for an 8-year old? Yes, but true nonetheless. I would wear my pajamas backwards because they looked like scrubs. I never changed my mind until I was lured away in college by the mistress that is "Chemistry."

Yes, I was one of those pre-meds we in academia all really love to love[2]. I was slowly lured away by chemistry, but the final nail in that coffin was when I took Advanced Organic Chemistry during J-term. Brutal and hardcore, but I loved it.

But, how did I get to that point? Well, I was prepared very well. Here are a few of the most important individuals in my academic training that made it possible for me to become a chemist.

Mr. Willems in high school. I had him for Biology, Chemistry and Physics. He did a lot with a limited budget. He was very well organized and orderly. He didn't just teach us facts and trivia. So much of today's HS curriculum deals with learning about facts and trivia[3]. Mr. Willems taught us to think through problems using basic principles. This is a skill that has helped me greatly. Of course, there are some facts that must be memorized. One of the most valuable things he forced us to memorize in Chemistry was the names and formulas of the common polyatomic ions. This proved to be incredibly valuable later in my college career.

Mr. Bolda in high school. I had Mr. Bolda for most of my HS math. He was also my track coach. He was your prototypical nerd that many HS students tend not to embrace, but he was a very good teacher. One that, despite his mannerisms, any reasonable student would respect[4]. I did respect him. This was in the days before every HS in the world offered AP calculus. What Mr. Bolda did offer was a solid foundation in trigonometry and problem solving. I still use the problem solving skills he taught us in HS. I got to college with the skills need to breeze through most of a math minor.

Mrs. Kjeer in college. Staying with the math theme, I had Mrs. Kjeer for almost all of my college math (calculus I and II, differential equations, multivariable calc...). It was my very first day of college, 8AM class. We walked into our classroom and were met by this young and attractive calculus teacher who seemed to be hopped up on too much caffeine. This was NOT what we were expecting. When we got into the class, we learned quickly she knew what she was talking about and she wasn't hopped up on an alkaloid. She loved what she was doing. This coupled with uncompromising standards, an infectious excitement for calculus and the ability to back up what she said inspired us. I took as much math from her as I could. This helped me in ways I don't even realize.

Mrs. Weberg in college. Finally, I get to an actual chemistry professor. Mrs. Weberg inspired many students to become chemists, and provided the tools to do so. I had her for General and Organic. Mrs. Weberg was a great teacher. She knew what she was talking about and knew how to get students to learn. However, most importantly, she was like a mother to so many students. She was a very nurturing person and it wasn't always in the lovey dovey way. She was a mother after all, and she knew that every now and then, the best way to motivate a student is to kick them in the butt. She was stern when she had to be and compassionate when she had to be. We learned as much about life as we did about Chemistry. What she did was create a situation with clear standards and the motivation to reach those standards.

There are others to be sure, but these are four of the more important ones for me.

In retrospect, all of these individuals had some common traits. They loved what they did. They had high and uncompromising standards. They provided as much support as a student may need or request. They realized there is life outside of the classroom.

I try to model how I teach and interact with my students around what these individuals did. I usually fall far short of what they did, but I try.

They are why I was able to become a chemist.

[1] Don't get me wrong, I watched a lot of Transformers and He-Man back in the day...
[2] Some of the words in this sentence are inaccurate.
[3] Read your states expected education outcomes.
[4] Of course, not all HS students tend to be reasonable in this regard. Mr. Bolda eventually quite teaching. I do not know where he is now.


Elderchemgeek said...

Um, me too. Except for Mrs. Kjeer – I had some guy who wore green suits (he was a Marquette grad) for calc (both times I took it). The only think I learned from him was that I wasn’t going to be an electrical engineer…

Oh yeah, and my grades were lower.

Rob W. said...

I didn't think many schools still did J-term. Where did you go to undergrad? Both your undergrad and where you teach sound like where I did undergrad.

Chemgeek said...

I did my undergrad at a small, private college in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul). I'm not sure if they still do J-term.

Mr. B said...

Well Chemgeek, I am very proud of you. I cherish my memories of teaching in MN and coaching track. After 29 years, I still love teaching and hope students appreciate my efforts, in spite of my mannerisms. I still make puns and joke around while teaching. I have taught Calculus 1 and 2 for the last 14 years. In fact 56 sections of each. But I still remember the high jumper and talented student who became a chemist. God's blessings! Look me up on the web.