Chemistry demonstration illuminates passion for teaching

by Gail Hinchion Mancini

Dennis Jacobs put propane torch to magnesium Tuesday (Dec. 3) before a group of his most prestigious Notre Dame peers, and illuminated for all why he has been singled out as the 2002 Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year for research and doctoral universities.p. Jacobs’ teaching demonstration came in the midst of a lecture he delivered at a campus celebration to acknowledge the award, which was presented to him Nov. 21 in Washington D.C., by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.p. Straight lectures from the podium receive only a passing grade from Jacobs, a chemistry professor. “When I honestly reflected upon my own experience of becoming a scientist, I realized it had little to do with listening to lectures and everything to do with inquiry and exploration,” he said.p. Hence Jacob’s demonstration, in which audience members such as Provost Nathan Hatch, President Rev. Edward A. Malloy C.S.C., and President Emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., were asked to work with one another and draw conclusions about the magnesium’s transformation when exposed to heat and oxygen.p. Jacobs exposes his students ? especially freshman ? to the same process. In discussing among themselves, they learn to argue their beliefs in the language of the discipline. They hear and learn to evaluate multiple perspectives. They gain the courage to share with the whole by practicing with a peer. In short, they become “participants in rather than consumers of the scientific method.”p. Such process teaching and collaborative learning contrasts with the formula for success many students learned in high school, “bulimic learning ? they would memorize the material, regurgitate it on the exams, and forget it so promptly and completely that no mental nourishment remains.”p. Jacobs said he has come to view a lecture as a formidable hurdle for first-year students who are not yet versatile in transferring concepts learned in one context to another, or who are lack experience at assembling original solutions to problems they never have seen.p. Jacobs’ foray into improving his Introductory Chemistry class led him to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, a movement primarily advanced by the Carnegie Foundation in which the process of teaching and learning is a scholarly and deliberately methodological one. Currently, Jacobs is applying this perspective to “Chemistry in the Service of the Community.” The course recasts Analytical Chemistry, using the community, local families and the threat of lead poisoning among children as laboratory subjects.p. Students work in conjunction with the Center for Social Concerns and Memorial Hospital to perform lead testing in local homes. They take samples from the home, determine the seriousness of the potential for lead poisoning, particularly among children, and work with families to help reduce the threat.p. “They attach a face, a name, a family to their work,” said Jacobs, who initiated the course in response to a commonly expressed student goal to combine intellectual learning with their faith and their search for a higher purpose in life.p. Jacobs urged his colleagues to embrace teaching as a methodological process, and to especially embrace undergraduate research.p. ?The fruit of undergraduate research is the training of young minds, and hence represents the future and lifeblood for our disciplines and for the academy," Jacobs said. “This is one of the invaluable experiences to which students should have access at a research university such as Notre Dame. We should not lose sight of the importance that this jewel adds to Notre Dame’s crown.”

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