28 Jun 2019

A chemist, a snake, and a baby walk into a bar...

Submitted by Kari Young, Centre College
Cohort 1
Reflection Piece 1

For me, the first VIPEr Fellows cohort workshop has come at a time of personal transition. I was awarded tenure this spring just a few weeks after I had my second baby. As I start to think about returning to teaching after maternity leave, I look around and wonder: What now? What am I supposed to be doing?

During the four days of this workshop, I have benefitted from the time spent reflecting on my class and thinking intentionally about how to adjust it. The survey and assessment data have shown me that my students are performing well in my class and that they generally feel motivated to learn. I want to keep my positive classroom culture. However, by considering my course, I realize that my main goal for students is less about bonding or solids and more about understanding the nature of science. Inorganic chemistry is a great platform for demonstrating ambiguity. For example, bonding is a continuum. Transition metals are all alike and yet all different. Even forbidden electronic transitions are observed experimentally.

In order to help students grapple with the construction of scientific models as well as their limitations, I have set the goal of incorporating four primary literature discussions this fall. For me, literature discussions are a concrete and structured way of showing students how the abstract ideas shown in their textbook are still being used by real scientists at the frontiers of chemistry. Everything they are learning is the foundation that we use to interpret new data about chemical structure and dynamics. At the same time, the literature provides a glimpse into the boundaries of our current understanding and the judgement required for data interpretation. I have been hesitant in the past to incorporate literature examples because I have been afraid that my students will get intimidated and give up. However, I’ve seen from others (most notably Sheila Smith) that we don’t have to comb through every line of every experiment to have a meaningful discussion about a paper. There are so many great literature discussions available on VIPEr that I don’t have to go searching for new papers just yet.

Perhaps the most important part of the workshop has been the sense of community. While we are all in different phases of life and career, we share many of the same victories and trials. Over the weekend, our conversations have switched effortlessly from the best LOs to family life to coordination chemistry to where to buy chemistry-themed clothing and back again. We've shared meals and ideas. My own experience reconciling my identities as both chemist and mother has been underscored by bring my three-month old baby along for the ride. My IONiC community has been incredibly supportive while I nursed, changed, wrapped, bounced, and soothed a crying baby. The group never doubted that I could and would engage in the whole process, even while we acknowledged that sometimes engagement might look different for me or that I might need a little extra help.

As I hoped it would, the VIPEr Fellows workshop has rekindled my excitement for teaching and for chemistry. I’m looking forward to trying some new things in my class this fall.

Comments

This is lovely, Kari, and I couldn't agree more with your comments on scientific models (and I loved your examples of ambiguity). I work hard on trying to get students to replace the words "right" or "wrong" with good, better, best. I start from the beginning by insisting that there is not a "correct" Lewis structure, but instead there might be a "most useful" or "fits best with experimental data" one.

And as you are undoubtedly well aware, with tenure comes new and important responsibilities. Even if you're the youngest in your department, your senior colleagues should now begin mentoring you to take on leadership roles. And don't forget that you have a bottomless source of support from your VIPEr friends!

Kari - great perspective! I think I had a similar realization about the LOs available on the VIPEr website - so many great ones to choose from and (minimally) adapt for my own needs. I think I had been stuck in the mindset of "you have to create every object in your course yourself" and forgot that there was a community to lean on. This meeting was a great way to shake me out of that!