April 21, 2003
Volume 81, Number 16
CENEAR 81 16 pp. 56
ISSN 0009-2347

FROM THE ACS MEETING

OF NONSCIENTISTS, PRIDE, AND ERASERS

Classroom veteran shares advice on teaching chemistry to nonmajors

SOPHIE L. WILKINSON

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SEASONED EDUCATOR Baird (clockwise from bottom left) with students Christine Winschel, John Spencer, Kathryn Stankiewicz, Sarah Arrington, Jeremy Richer, and Emilie Schierloh. PHOTO BY ALLEN MARANGONI
"
I realized things were not going well when an eraser hit me in the head."

That's how Michael J. Baird, an associate professor of chemistry and department chairman at Wheeling Jesuit University, in West Virginia, described one of his experiences in teaching nonscientists. "Teaching a chemistry course to liberal arts students is a difficult assignment," he noted. "These students are taking the course to fulfill their science requirement. Most are not interested in chemistry and/or are scared to death of it." In his wide-ranging chemistry teaching career, convicts, bored athletes, and nursing students who became hysterical over math problems have provided the challenges--and ultimately a source of pride--for Baird.

He shared recollections from his career during the American Chemical Society national meeting in New Orleans last month. Baird's paper was included in a symposium on teaching chemistry to nonmajors that was hosted by the Division of Chemical Education.

The learning curve for an instructor teaching such students can be a steep one. Baird, who taught part time at four institutions before he took on his current full-time teaching post at Wheeling Jesuit, conceded he made mistakes while learning the ropes.

His first encounter with nonscientists arose when the chairman of the chemistry department at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania appealed to Baird to teach a course that the full-time faculty didn't want to take on. Before this adventure, Baird had only taught chemical engineering courses in Chicago.

Most of the 53 students enrolled in his Pennsylvania course were uninterested freshman football and basketball players. To make matters worse, the class was scheduled for the evening.

The eraser incident occurred during his first semester teaching the class. The same evening, a couple of students wouldn't sit down until he informed them that their grades would be lowered. And after being exasperated by one too many wisecracks from another student, Baird blurted out, "You should be happy you're in this easy course. You couldn't make it in the Chicago schools." Baird admitted that was "not the right thing to say, but the environment was unreal."

Baird said, "I finally got ahold of the class when I started giving pop quizzes one minute after class started." That got the students into class on time. And to his surprise, "these easy quizzes, where grades were As and Bs, instilled confidence in the students, and the teaching environment improved." He also introduced detailed reviews before exams, which focused the students' study on the main issues. And he won concessions for future semesters from the chairman and dean, who agreed to limit class size to 30 and to hold classes in smaller rooms so that students couldn't "scatter like flies."

Baird stepped into an even more stressful environment when he agreed to replace an instructor who had quit a position teaching inmates at a state correctional institute in Pennsylvania. Baird taught the classes for three hours in the evening in a locked room. The students were mostly in their 30s and were serving time for misdeeds such as drug possession.

During the third class, one of the inmates emitted a loud bird call every time Baird turned toward the blackboard. After the third bird call, Baird responded by yelling at him "using some of my Texas cusswords. I didn't expect to do that ... it just came out," he said. "That turned around the whole class. It was dead silence for the remainder of the hour."

Baird taught an advanced freshman chemistry course to the same inmates, who "worked hard and did very well on exams." He was one of the first "outsiders" to be invited to their graduation from the two-year business program. Some went on to university after being released from prison.

BAIRD'S NEXT challenge was to get through to students at a nursing school in Ohio. The freshmen were "terrified of math," he recalled. When he returned their first exam, they "became distraught and angry." Baird sat down with them to find out what was up. "All they wanted was to be taught something useful that related more to their future profession," he said. So he switched textbooks and focused on organic, biochemical, and health-related issues, and student attitudes improved.

Experiences from his varied career have provided Baird with the resources to introduce these topics into his classes. He has done research in converting coal to gasoline for the Bureau of Mines and in catalysis and petroleum processing for Ashland Oil and Amoco Oil. He was a project manager in the liquid fuels and environmental cleanup divisions for the Department of Energy.

Baird collected a lot of slides during his tenure with government, industry, and academia, and he brings them to class to catch his students' interest. To maintain that interest, he skirts around much of the math and many of the principles of chemistry--"which only the chemists probably like"--and concentrates on "stuff that students can use in their lives." He challenges them with questions on environmental and energy-related topics they have encountered on TV or in the newspaper, such as whether sport-utility vehicles should be banned or whether methyl tert-butyl ether in gasoline is highly soluble in water.

And as a result, said this veteran of classroom tussling, "I haven't had a problem in the past four years, and I really enjoy teaching this course."


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