Nicholas J. Turro

Columbia University
2002 DTS Award

Nicholas J. Turro
Schweitzer Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry
Columbia University

NSF Award Recognition


Jeanne L. Narum, Director, Project Kaleidoscope, interviewing Dr. Nicholas J. Turro

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?

A visitor would find a group of students who are in a learning process in which one of the most engaged students is the instructor. I've always felt that to be an effective teacher you've got to get into the head of the student and try to understand the arduous process of learning a subject. I'm a fan of the notion that we create our own knowledge best by a combination of distributed learning in groups as well as the hard work of scholarship, reading extensively and practicing with relevant problems.

To me, the learning experience involves a process that is independent of content. Good teaching and learning integrate content with context and cognition components. An effective teacher employs the integration explicitly or implicitly. The context is connecting the content to issues that are important to the student and provide a motivation for the student to learn. The cognition component provides a set of intellectual techniques that are powerful for learning in general, like peer interactions in learning, active learning, and student responsibility for learning.

In my laboratory I hope that the visitor would notice that the principles of effective learning were being transferred to the research training and mentoring experience. My students work on both individual and collaborative projects. The importance of peer interactions and exchange of information and technical expertise are stressed. The visitor would find a research supervisor who is also a mentor with a concern for the development of each student as a person who will develop into a scholar, a professional and a researcher.

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

Some time ago I began wondering how my own thinking process worked. My teaching and research seemed to be effective and well received, and I wondered if I could figure out what I seemed be doing right and formalize it to the point that I could train others to use the processes I was following. I concluded that my teaching and research and ordinary everyday decision-making were all cut from the same intellectual fabric: a love of structure and connections. Chemistry is all about how atoms are connected to form molecular structures and how these structures can be reconnected at the atomic level to synthesize the structures that we perceive in the world around us.

Now, education and research are integrated completely in my intellectual style. Both involve the process of making connections, with undergraduate education at the level of a novice being introduced to a discipline, and in research at the level of an apprentice being trained to become a professional.

Recently, as an essential part of the integration process, I have become a fan of the use of information technologies. IT is very effective at the undergraduate education and graduate levels to provide a richness for context of material, for active learning, for practice in solving problems and for an incredible richness of content on the web. In research we have established a web page that is intended to be a first stop, last stop place to go for information on all aspects of research in the discipline.

Were there risks in doing this? What made you persevere?

In my view there was a symmetry between education and research, rather than risks. So I found a synergism. By developing IT materials for undergraduate courses, I became familiar with, and learned, IT techniques and methods that could be applied to research. By working with computers and the web in research, I found materials, and generated ideas that could be used in the classroom. Both required integrating the learning process to teach students and myself in the process.

A bonus in all this was that NSF began to promote the incorporation of IT into education and the integration of education and research years after I had decided that both would be bedrocks for my own teaching and research programs. The bonus was that funding was available that would benefit both programs. I decided to provide some leadership in promoting the use of IT in teaching, learning and research at Columbia and was successful in receiving a University-Wide Reform award to create a Faculty-Student IT Cluster for the sciences. Again, there was a synergism. Creating the Cluster enhanced and developed my own teaching, learning and research. The Cluster demonstrated the importance of IT to teaching and research at Columbia and by the end of the NSF award, the University decided to create a permanent Center for New Media Teaching and Learning for the campus, with the Cluster as a starting model.

For a researcher who operates an active research program, one of the usual "risks" is putting too much of his/her time and resources into education. Research is very expensive and a great deal of time must be put into writing and administering grants, which have inescapable deadlines for applications and results. With NSF supporting both pure educational activities and encouraging the integration of research and education (the DTS award is an outstanding example of this attitude), researchers now have access to funding that allows considerable relief from the burdens of obtaining funding for research and then trying to do the education piece on the side.

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?

To be involved and effective in the scholarship of education, one must begin networking with a group that is essentially orthogonal to the traditional research community at large universities. This is a benefit, but few faculty at major universities have any inclination or straightforward process to make such connections. In 1996 I accepted the Chairmanship of a NAS committee commissioned to write a report on the use of IT to enhance undergraduate education. This committee coupled wonderfully with my decision to use IT to enhance my own teaching, learning and research. By 1999, through the work of the committee, I felt that I had networked with many of the important players in the field of educational research and that I had begun to penetrate and understand the scholarship and psyche of the field. In addition, I was brought up to date on progress in the use of IT in many important aspects of undergraduate science education. I've maintained many of these connections, which have proved to be very valuable in my efforts to integrate research and education.

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 bottom line with respect to promotion to tenure at a major research university is the unequivocal demonstration of accomplishment and potential for continued excellence in research. What this means is that a junior faculty member must be careful not to ignore this reality, and to avoid giving up energy and resources that will endanger the ability to achieve an excellent research component to his/her tenure dossier. Teaching performance is considered an important component of the dossier, but is not likely to compensate for an undistinguished research performance. Thus, good mentoring is required for the untenured faculty member, not only on how to balance teaching versus research, but also to understand what is expected in undergraduate courses, especially large courses.

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

I think most institutions will respond favorably to efforts to integrate education and research if the process is presented properly and resources are made available. In my experience faculty are enthusiastic about the concept, but may not have specific ideas about implementation. When presented with good ideas on the matter, they generally adopt them.

What can be done at the national level to encourage and support efforts?

As implied above, a national database that is faculty friendly and which presents faculty with ideas on how to integrate research and education, how to find funding for such efforts and how to find outstanding examples of successful practices would be very helpful. Workshops specifically directed at interested faculty at major research universities would also be helpful.

What is the project you are undertaking as part of your DTS award? How can others be involved?

I've always been fascinated by photochemistry and spectroscopy because of the underlying theme that both reflect the interaction of light and matter. About 10 years ago I embarked on the development of IR Tutor (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/chemistry/edison/IRTutor.htm), an example of a highly successful IT software tool for undergraduates to learn infrared spectroscopy. The module incorporates my ideas of integrating content and context with cognitive methods for effective learning. With IR Tutor as an example, I'm developing software modules in UV-VIS absorption and emission (fluorescence) and NMR and EPR spectroscopy. These modules would be made available to undergraduates across the nation via the web. In addition, I'm working on a web- based course that teaches spectroscopy and organic photochemistry, and will be available to undergraduates across the nation. As part of the course, modules will be developed to assist the students in learning the fundamental principles of organic photochemistry and organic spectroscopy.

For more information, see http://turroserver.chem.columbia.edu/