Published: Wed Nov 1, 2006National experts say Scott Northrup's chemistry class at Tennessee Tech University is an example of the best in the nation. That's why he can't imagine going back to giving 50-minute lectures — "monologues addressed to an audience with sleepy yawns and listless notetaking" to quote the chemistry professor.
Because of his use of technology and his penchant for student engagement, TTU's General Chemistry I/General Chemistry II has been named one of the top examples of best practices in a national study of chemistry courses conducted by the Center for Educational Policy Research on behalf of the College Board.
"I'm not teaching anything like I used to," said Northrup. "I've embarked on a new challenge to create a dynamic student-centered learning environment. It's a work in progress to more actively engage students through the use of thoughtfully chosen technologies."
For example, Northrup gives web-based electronic homework that provides instantaneous feedback. He also lectures using a TabletPC attached to a projector. Using a PowerPoint shell of notes, he annotates the slides while lecturing and puts it all on the web for later use as study aides.
"Students get to observe the process of the problem solving this way," said Northrup.
In large classes, he combines his techniques and uses the audience response, or clicker, technology to give pop quizzes and surveys to encourage classroom participation.
Northrup says not everything that actively engages the students is done through technology. He uses group-participatory simulation exercises to demonstrate such concepts as the law of mass action and the reversibility of chemical reactions.
"In these simulations, the students become the molecules and execute dynamical behavior based on coin-flips," he explained.
CEPR assembled a panel of national experts to analyze top courses from a wide range of institutions. A total of 166 courses from across that nation were reviewed. The study sought to identify best practices college courses that could lead to the redesign of advanced placement courses in chemistry.
In addition to being designated one of the best courses, specific elements of Northrup's course were called "exemplary."
"Your institution can take pride in faculty such as Dr. Northrup and the contributions that faculty of this caliber make to improving education practices nationally," said CEPR Director David T. Conley.
But the CEPR recognition is not necessarily how Northrup gauges his success. He measures it by how he has positively affected the way students learn.
"Without changing my grading standards, I find myself giving many more A's and B's," he said. "My student evaluations are strikingly improved. I cannot imagine going back to teaching this course the old-fashioned way."