This is National Chemistry Week, and in celebration chemists are being asked to join the Chem Coach Carnival, a series of blogs across the web about the varied and strange career paths we follow in chemistry.
This is a departure from what I intended this blog to be, but oh well. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.
Current job: Associate Professor and Department Chair of Chemistry, Oklahoma City University. We are a small liberal-arts university with a total enrollment of about 2300.
Standard work day: Teach between 2 and 6 hours per day (lectures and labs). Most classes have around 20-25 students. The rest of the time is spent preparing the next class, prepping or tearing down teaching labs, tutoring students, various and random administrative duties. Occasionally I do a little research in chemical education, including mentoring undergraduates.
Education: B.A. in Chemistry (Rice), Ph.D. in Chemistry (U. C. Berkeley). After grad school I taught for six-year at a charter high school that I helped found in my hometown of Oklahoma City, Harding Charter Prep. I now refer to this as my “educational post-doc”. I would never have been offered my current position without those six years of teaching experience, and the experience has been invaluable.
How chemistry informs my work: I spend most hours of most days trying to explain, or think of better ways to explain, chemistry to young people. Teaching chemistry forces you (if you’re a good teacher) to immerse yourself in the ideas, concepts, models and thinking of chemistry. For a few weeks a year I live and breathe reactions, both symbolically and at the atomic level. Later I think almost non-stop about hydrogen bonding. The more difficult the concept is, the harder you have to think about what the subject really means, then find a way to bring the students to the subject.
Anecdote: I once was a reader for the AP Chemistry exam, and had to sit for 8 days reading mostly incorrect essays about hydrogen bonding. About 90% of the best high school students in the nation believed that hydrogen bonding way an intra-molecular force (“Ethanol has a bond between O and H. That’s a really special, strong bond, called a hydrogen bond”). At meals many of my fellow graders would say, in a very high-and-mighty tone, “Well, what I tell my students is…”. Then I finally realized it doesn’t matter what you say. It matter what the students learn. That principle has guided my teaching ever since.
Best graffiti ever found on my chalkboard: “Dr. Prilliman: 1% man, 99% science!”