Chem Coach Carnival

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!”


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