PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

David E. Thompson

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

David Thompson is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Lawrence University.

What is your vision of a robust research-rich learning environment?

A research-rich learning environment is one in which students and faculty actively deepen understanding through scientific questioning and experimentation. In such an environment the community encourages incoming members to select a starting point related to a personal interest. An example might be a topic such as “Arsenic in the environment”. It then encourages them to delve into the review literature in this area and as they take successive classes to hold onto their interest and to see how each class in turn can help them to understand it more richly. Ideally students would self identify their interests and then interested faculty could creatively work to find at least one assignment that enabled the student to see how a specific scientific field, for example organic chemistry or physics, is important to growing knowledge related to the student’s selected topical starting point. Loose quantitative targets could be established for all community members to give them a scope of the scale of the task. A reasonable example would be to encourage all community members to strive read at least 30 journal articles, one current monograph and one historical account relating to their original topic over the course of four years.

Upon this foundation of scholarship, a research-rich learning environment seeks to build an appropriate balance of confidence, skepticism and appreciation for excellence in students’ own work and in their evaluations of the work of others. To develop self confidence students need be able to successfully replicate the work of others. To develop an appropriate sense of skepticism and creative excellence students need to pursue research that is their own. As they study the work of others students should be searching for experiments that they can personally attempt to replicate. This takes them out of the bleachers and onto the floor with experiments that if appropriately chosen have a high probability of success and that help them to understand the essential winnowing and sifting role that replication plays in science. To provide a research-rich environment schools must have sufficient equipment to be able to replicate a reasonable fraction of experiments in the current literature and must find ways to make time, labs and equipment available to individual students.

A research-rich learning environment searches out gaps in scientific understanding and bridges such gaps with creative experiments. Scientific creativity flourishes where fundamental skills are aggressively developed and in environments where there is ample opportunity to interact with other creative scientific minds. Seminars and lunches foster exposure to a wide diversity of experiments and provide rich spaces for cross fertilization of experimental ideas. Examples of creative breakthroughs from the past such as Brunauer, Emmett and Teller’s isotherm experiments, should be ferreted out and actively studied and celebrated in the classroom. Bringing such excellent material out from the textbooks and lectures into everyday student discussions is not an easy task. Creative outlets like chalking sidewalks and entering races in the costumes inspired by great experiments can bring fun and enthusiasm back into the more serious research and learning. Today’s students have a host of wonderful opportunities competing for their time. Because of this and the fact that the body of scientific research is continually expanding a rigorous and creative presentation of science should reach out to students where they are at and should be accompanied by concerted ongoing efforts to optimize the efficiency of learning.

Thus, a research-rich learning environment must be an experiment in itself. We need to examine our laboratories and lectures, group projects and other assignments and employ assessment mechanisms that help us to monitor our overarching goals, and how effectively and efficiently we as individuals and as a community are meeting them. At any given moment some portions of the curriculum will resonate well with the learning goals and styles of the present community, while other aspects of the curriculum will be found to be less successful and in need of modification. Feedback loops should convey openness to the idea that active science is not static in either its methods or its outlook. Modifications and additions to widely used feedback mechanisms (course grades, instructor evaluations, peer reviews, departmental meetings etc.) have yielded a growing body of excellent ideas for effective assessment. These provide springboards to rich conversations enabling productive communication, praise and criticism. Such conversations are a hallmark and one of the greatest rewards of developing a hard working, scientifically rigorous, research-rich learning environment.