4/12/2019 Peter Durantine

Yes, Professor, the Lecture Can Evolve, Speaker Says

For those in the pedagogical set, the title, “Is the Classroom Lecture Becoming Extinct or Simply Evolving?” may have raised concern at the April 11 Common Hour, a community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session. However, they were soon assured. 

“Can you evolve the classroom so that the lecture can stay relevant? I really do think the answer is ‘Yes,’” said Catherine Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The lecture is practical, and there a number of things one can do to make that lecture more relevant.”

Through her approximately 45-minute lecture in Mayser Gym, Drennan used humor, slides, diagrams, illustrations and videos to demonstrate how she made chemistry relevant to her students.

  • At MIT, Dennan embarked on a quest to make chemistry relevant to students who "didn’t really appreciate the relationship between chemistry and the real world, and they didn’t see themselves as chemists." At MIT, Dennan embarked on a quest to make chemistry relevant to students who "didn’t really appreciate the relationship between chemistry and the real world, and they didn’t see themselves as chemists." Image Credit: Deb Grove

Making chemistry relevant became a quest for her after graduating from Vassar College. She taught in a Quaker high school in rural Iowa, where, she said, “Students in my chemistry classroom did not always appreciate the value of chemistry for solving real-world problems.”

More disheartening, she said, “They didn’t see the connections and they didn’t seem themselves as chemists.” She flashed on the screen a slide of pictures of famous 18th- and 19th-century century chemists like Italian Amedeo Avogadro. “Somehow, they looked at these pictures and they didn’t seem themselves as chemists.” 

When she began teaching at MIT, a place where she expected to find many students inspired to become scientists, Drennan said, “I found out they also didn’t really appreciate the relationship between chemistry and the real world, and they didn’t see themselves as chemists.

“So, I realized, we have a problem, and I wondered, what can we do about it? How can I inspire my students to be able to see the connections with the real world? How can I help them see themselves as chemists, and involve the lecture format so we’re doing better?”

Drennan turned to education technology and used the clicker, a credit-card device (also an app) in which students clicked what they thought the correct answers are to questions she asked in class.

“This was a way of engaging students in class, seeing if students are confused or are with you,” she said. “Also, students can see that maybe they didn’t understand something, but lots of other people didn’t either. They can see where they stand with the rest of the class.” 

It proved a useful device, Drennan said, but she also had another agenda with the clickers. “I was hoping to build a sense of community by using this method, a sense of team.”

With the clickers, she created teams and started weekly competitions on recitations. The winners would get snacks. The competitions would go on until the semester’s end when the winners in the final competition would get custom-made T-shirts. The competitions required students to study together, which helped build their confidence and social network. 

“It was a chance to form your team to study chemistry together,” Drennan said.

Drennan found through research that the clickers helped students with thinking, conceptualization and identifying weaknesses. 

She also showed students photos of young chemists and videos of graduate chemistry students such as Ben who talked about his struggles in college. They identified with the images and videos; they could see themselves as chemists.

However, she said, some professors tried the clickers with their class, but didn’t like them.

“It’s not the use of the clickers; it’s how you use them,” Drennan said. “Small things make a huge difference.” 

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