Arthur B. Ellis

University of Wisconsin-Madison
2001 DTS Award

Dr. Arthur B. Ellis
Meloche-Bascom Professor of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Ellis Group Homepage

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Arthur B. Ellis.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab - the environment in which you work with students - what impression would s/he leave with?

Probably that we have a lot of fun and that we find a great deal of synergy in our research and educational activities. We keep many hands-on demonstrations in my office for visitors to play with, and use these to talk about the frontiers of research and technology. Our labs are a mix of research instrumentation and instructional products in various stages of development.

What brought you to an interest in "advancing the frontiers of education" and to connecting your research to that work?

When the breakthrough in high temperature superconductors occurred in the mid-80's, I became fascinated with the ability of these solids to levitate magnets when they were cooled with commonly-available liquid nitrogen. I had the wherewithal in my group to make these solids, and approached the Institute for Chemical Education (ICE) about producing a kit that could be distributed to teachers and others for replicating the experiment. I enjoyed the process of creating the kit. For me, it was an engaging blending of research and education that prompted me to look for additional opportunities along these lines.

Were there risks in doing this? What were they? What made you persevere? How have you documented the successes of your educational efforts?

There did not seem to be a risk at the time because there was broad interest in the research community in these novel superconductor materials, and I was helping to make them accessible. I received a lot of encouragement for this project. A subsequent effort to create instructional materials for materials science more broadly was riskier: it required organizing a large number of individuals nationally, raising funds, and convincing the chemistry community that they should begin to use new examples to teach fundamental concepts.

We have documented the project in the monograph, "You Do Teach Atoms, Don't You? A Case Study in Breaking Science Curriculum Gridlock," by Lyman Lyons and Susan Millar of the UW-Madison LEAD Center. At each stage of the project, we received substantial positive feedback and support from the community, which encouraged us to continue the effort. Particularly critical was substantial funding from NSF which gave us great credibility in the community. We have documented success through numbers of products sold by ICE, numbers of books sold by ACS and Oxford University Press, website visits, emails, and workshop/seminar surveys.

What connections have been of most value in pursuing these efforts, within your campus community as well as in the broader professional communities to which you belong?

It has been important to keep our colleagues on campus, at funding agencies, and in the community aware of our work, even when it was in its embryonic stage. Making individuals aware at an early stage often led to referrals to other helpful individuals, to suggestions for improving products, and to early adoption of products as they became available.

For faculty at an early career stage, it is difficult to figure out how to balance responsibilities for research and teaching while having a personal life; any advice - for them and for faculty at any stage?

The way in which I have spent my time has evolved substantially over the course of my career, as research and teaching opportunities have changed and as my family circumstances have changed. At different career stages I have spent different relative amounts of time on research, education, and my personal life. I have been fortunate to belong to a department, campus, and discipline that have been supportive of my diverse interests and their evolution over time. As a community, we need to continue to find ways to enable faculty to have flexibility in their professional and personal activities. I believe that the community is moving in this direction, and the support of campuses, funding agencies, and professional organizations can catalyze this transition.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and education?

There should be general understanding that the educational enterprise needs to be the same kind of moving target as the research enterprise. We take it for granted that there are always new advances in research, and this spirit should characterize education, as well. If we want the educational enterprise to have the same kind of vitality as the research enterprise, and a commensurate level of scholarship, this can be accomplished by continuously infusing our curricula and outreach activities with the latest exciting developments in research and technology. A shift in institutional culture that promotes this philosophy will encourage more faculty to explore opportunities for integrating research and education in their careers and will lead to new paradigms for how this can be done.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts like yours and those of many other leading agents of change on campuses across the country?

The sustained support of funding agencies like NSF makes it politically acceptable for individuals, departments, and campuses to contribute to ongoing curricular and outreach modernization. Professional organizations can also help by supporting and publicizing initiatives.

Please tell us about the project that you will be undertaking as part of the DTS award. How can others be involved with and/or continue to be informed about your work?

My co-workers and I will be developing instructional materials to help integrate nanoscale science and technology into college STEM curricula. Specifically, we will be developing instructional materials around nanoparticles, nanoporous materials, and nanoscale architecture. Examples of products developed to date with NSF support (through the UW-Madison Materials Research Science and Engineering Center on Nanostructured Materials and Interfaces) can be found at http://www.mrsec.wisc.edu/edetc. We are always looking for new ideas for projects. Individuals who want to be involved should contact me at ellis@chem.wisc.edu.