Sunday, May 10, 2015

My teaching statement from 1996

Here is the teaching statement I wrote when was applying for tenure track positions in the US in 1996.  Glad to see the WWW is still around today, otherwise it would have spoiled all my teaching plans :).  How this would look like if I had to write it today is a topic for another blog post. 

Jan H. Jensen

Lecturing.  Even though I am a theoretical chemist I strongly believe that doing experimental demonstrations is one of the best ways of teaching and I have used it whenever I could.  It is a great way to show chemical concepts at work and it makes everything less abstract.  I have used experiments both as a way of introducing a topic and as a summary.  In both cases I generally ask the students to predict and explain the outcome to me first.  Ideally, I would like to perform one short demonstration per lecture but an appropriate demonstration for a given topic can be hard to find.  So I would like develop some new demonstrations as part of my teaching efforts.

Invariably we as chemists must explain these experiments and other phenomena in terms of atoms and molecules and this can be very hard.  For example, it is easy enough to say that heat is the random motion of molecules, and quite another to make the students imagine what we think this really looks like.  I think the easiest solution is to use computer graphics to generate animation to describe these things.  Computer animations are routinely done in computational research and there is no reason why one could not create and show these animations during lecture.  Furthermore, additional demonstrations could easily be made available outside of class if a computer lab is available.  Many of the programs used to calculate and display chemical results are easy enough to use so that students can be given access to them outside class.

In addition I would like to explore an attractive and increasingly viable alternative to the traditional computer labs, namely the World Wide Web.  The development of the JAVA language will soon make it possible to imbed 3-dimensional objects and movies, which can be rotated and manipulated interactively, in Web pages.  In effect, this will enable instructors to make interactive course notes or textbooks available to students in a format that most students already will be familiar with.  Furthermore, this material can be accessed from almost anywhere and at any time.

I have intentionally kept my comments fairly general because I believe they apply not only to introductory chemistry (where I have the most experience) but also physical chemistry and graduate classes.  Suitable experimental demonstrations may become harder to perform in-class for higher level courses, but these classes are generally small enough so that the demonstrations could be performed even in a research laboratory.

Research.  Science is best taught through research.  Based on personal experience I believe that undergraduate students should become involved in research as early as possible, and I plan to actively encourage that.  Basic computational chemistry has a fairly easy learning curve and students can quickly get started.  The subsequent interpretation of results will naturally lead the student to learn basic chemical and quantum mechanical principles.

It is hard to say how one would teach graduate students in general since that clearly depends on the individual student.  However, I will address one general expectation.  Students will be required to take on both computational and theoretical/programming projects, though not necessarily an equal amount of both.  Student whose main interest is computational chemistry should have at least some modest ability to alter the computer programs with which they work, so that their research is not totally determined by the capabilities of the programs they employ.  Theory/programming oriented students have to learn how to effectively apply the tools they develop.  Planning and performing a thorough theoretical study of a particular chemical problem is a non-trivial task that must be taught.

Shared students between experimental and theoretical groups are becoming increasingly popular, and I think it is a positive development.  Such students would not be required to take on a theoretical/programming problem.

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