PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Donald Wink

What works: Observations from the field

Donald Wink

Don Wink is Associate Professor of Chemistry at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

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?

I would hope the visitor would that every session has students generating something that becomes the basis of a discussion by them or by the whole class. In a lab this may be data to share; in a lecture it would be the results of a worksheet. They come to look at each other for information, and I become the source of the assignment and the place to turn for guidance.

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

There have been many steps in this but I have to say that the very beginning--when I was at New York University--concerned an assignment to a lab course that had many traditional experiments conducted on very basic substances. Another inorganic chemist and I turned to using "modern" molecules as the basis of the assignments, including some that had only recently been made. Even the most basic methods can be done with interesting molecules. Over the years I have turned from this to the problem--which in some ways cutting edge although goodness knows it is nothing new--of bringing science learning to the diverse richness of Chicago, both at University of Illinois at Chicago and in the school system.

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

The crises continue: I can't do it all! But I learned early on to find a network of those who can work with me. These, for me, have to be based on sharing. Early on I realized that no one is much interested in listening to me talk about education. But a lot of people can get very involved in working together. This means they bring ideas and methods. And in the end it makes it possible to walk away and know that what I participated in remains.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

Community college colleagues are critical to my undergraduate work. The single most important phone call of my career was a "cold call" to Harper College in 1993 when I first connected with Julie Ellefson. And there are wonderful high school teachers who know more about teaching than anyone I know. Others helped to make these.

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

I think realistic expectations and high standards are both involved. For an assistant professor starting his or her career at a research university where the tenured faculty average a dozen publications per year the expectations are modest. These ramp up significantly when they become an associate professor (and, at that point, have the research results to integrate comprehensively into teaching). High standards involve not settling for "sprinkling" research into teaching, but engaging faculty time in thinking about how the educational environment of a set of students can be improved by knowledge of chemistry.