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Smorgasbord allows students to achieve in diverse ways


Striving to be an ever more effective teacher, Joseph Grabowski, Chemistry, is determined to assist his students to achieve more than they think they can. Continually experimenting with new strategies and techniques, Grabowski also views himself as a student who uses the University not only to learn more about teaching but also to share what he learns with colleagues.

His passion for university teaching was aroused as an undergraduate: “From my first experience as a college student, I said, ‘Let me play in this sandbox!’ I liked to fiddle around in the science laboratories and thought about ways I could do a better job than the faculty teaching me. (Little did I realize then how difficult teaching really is!) I’ve always had an affinity for the diversity of problems, the breadth of ideas, and the opportunities to work with intellectually talented people, those fountains of creativity who ‘keep me on my toes.’ Fortunately, no matter where I go, there are smart people saying really interesting things.”

Some learn well from lectures, while others from books, group activities, individual activities, repetition of simple problems, or mind— challenging problem solving. –Joe Grabowski

Active Learning
Grabowski is highly attuned to the nature of his students. Thinking of ways to get them prepared for a class and to work with the new material after the class, he recalls “as an undergraduate, I always loved puzzles—loved sitting down and working on things. And chemistry provides the ultimate springboard for this kind of active learning—to discover by doing research in the lab.”

Grabowski finds organic chemistry an especially challenging course that allows him to employ a variety of teaching strategies. In a typical class of 150 non-majors, he “sets a smorgasbord to create diverse ways students can achieve. Some learn well from lectures, while others from books, group activities, individual activities, repetition of simple problems, or mind-challenging problem solving.”

Sharing Ideas
Grabowski illustrates his view of himself as a student of students: “When I go to an American Chemistry Society Conference, when I am reading, or when I attend seminars, I always spend some time learning about new research and some time learning about teaching.” As he notes, “The more I expose myself to new ideas, the more likely I will find something relevant to my classes.” For example, he plans to implement some new ideas he recently picked up at a workshop on writing and speaking across the curriculum.

In studying and refining teaching, Grabowski emphasizes the importance of sharing ideas. He actively participates in his department’s monthly “What’s Interesting in Teaching Session” (WITS) that occasionally co-meets with faculty from other departments such as biology and physics. Realizing that many ideas for his projects were sparked by colleagues, he likewise encourages others to exploit his thoughts and innovations in their teaching.

For example, he explains that many high school and college faculty were already using forms of an online Jeopardy! game when he began toying with the idea several years ago. Since his students are “so computer savvy,” Grabowski was challenged to create a game that looked polished and professional but was still usable by anyone.

Therefore, he created user-friendly tools, templates, and a repository, enabling anyone not only to create a Jeopardy! game but also to share their adaptations with others.

Another shared idea that developed into a dynamic project is the 3-D projection system in Chevron Science Center. Grabowski explains: “Two years ago I was using 30-year-old transparencies when a colleague asked me why I wasn’t using 3-D to project the molecular images I was teaching.” That’s when Grabowski and several teaching assistants began work on the project. He, along with two other Pitt faculty and two faculty from nearby institutions, has submitted a grant proposal to make the system “user friendly enough to turn it over to everyone. We need to make it time efficient so people who are not the technologically elite can adapt it to their classrooms.”

Enthusiastic about educational uses of computers, Grabowski has difficulty even envisioning future technology: “We will be doing things yet undreamed of.” Although he stops short of asserting that computer technology use is essential to improving teaching, he readily acknowledges his affinity for adapting technology to help students learn, noting, “The reason I use computers is that I’m driven to help my students achieve more.” So, his use of PowerPoint to allow students to absorb information rather than to take notes in class has expanded to include web-based animations, practice problems, group projects, peer-led learning groups, self-assessments and other learning activities.

He feels his personal and professional characteristics are conducive to finding instructional uses of computers: “I’m receptive to new ideas, comfortable with technology, and willing to deal with it. Having grown up with seven brothers and sisters, I have a thick skin. Therefore, I can deal with the little setbacks—those inevitable technical glitches. Also, I’m willing to ask for help and try again.

As a natural scientist, I do lots of experiments that I hope will work, but don’t always know what the next step is. As a result, some don’t pan out because of a lack of knowledge or technique. In fact, I try a lot of this stuff because I’m not afraid to fail. (In the fall, he plans to try two new activities in his Honors Organic Chemistry class, electronic audience response systems and guided inquiry, to replace some of the lectures.) And, finally, I think it really helps that I have a sense of humor.” Additionally, Grabowski attributes the success of some of his ideas to Pitt’s “wonderful diversity of resources, faculty, and students. These students are not afraid of anything; they have knowledge of computer techniques, and patience with failure.”

Scholarship of Teaching
Grabowski’s passion for the scholarship of teaching transcends informal sharing with Pitt colleagues. He has published numerous articles in journals such as the Journal of Chemical Education. Also, he participates in ConfChem, an online forum on teaching chemistry, where, he notes, “chemistry teachers are talking a great deal about abandoning the ‘sage on the stage’ for student-centered learning. However, some people keep questioning how we can ‘prove’ that active teaching methods are an improvement over traditional methods.

Natural scientists measure things, and assessment is an inherent part of chemistry; but it is extremely challenging to correctly define all the controls to conduct an experiment to measure learning. So we get qualitative feedback on student experiences.” As he continues to struggle with effective quantitative assessment strategies, Grabowski feels comfortable sharing his ideas at national conferences and in print.

His passion to involve students actively in their learning has extended beyond college chemistry classes. He is in the third year of an undergraduate summer research program funded by the National Science Foundation and has been named director of an undergraduate research component of the new campus Office of Experiential Learning.



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