There’s No PowerPoint in This Classroom; Just Six Blackboards and Lots of Chalk

Not many teachers would have the courage to ask, on the last day of class, how many of the nearly 180 students sitting before him had been dreading the course when it first began back in September. But that’s exactly what Scott Miller, the Irénée duPont Professor of Chemistry, did on a cold morning last December. And a good number of hands went up.

Miller wasn’t surprised. After all, he’s a veteran in teaching that most dreaded of college courses, the bane of every pre-med sophomore everywhere: organic chemistry.

“So many of the students come to ‘Chem 220’ with a great sense of dread,” says Miller. “They’ve heard such horrible things about it — that it’s very hard, it’s tons of memorization, it’s a weed-out course for medical school.”

Audio: Hear why Scott Miller loves teaching one of the most dreaded courses on campus.

To help assuage their fears, Miller has adopted a unique method for getting his students to focus on the interesting aspects of organic chemistry rather than on how difficult the course is going to be. “Lots of them are dreading the class — probably more than the number of hands in the air,” he says. “But if you ask the same group ‘Would you like me to tell you how a cancer chemotherapeutic drug works?’ every body says yes.”

So on the first day of class, Miller hands out a technical paper published in the journal Science that describes — in very sophisticated detail — how a certain anti-tumor drug works. Then he makes a deal.

“I tell them we’re going to have a contract. They’ll work hard, I’ll work hard with them, and by the end of the semester, they’ll be able to understand this paper,” he says. “It looks very imposing and complicated; yet the notion of being able to understand it is very tantalizing to them. I think they’re very inspired and motivated to stay engaged.”

It’s clear from watching the students that staying engaged is not all that difficult in Miller’s class. After filing into class, bleary-eyed and desperately clutching mugs of coffee, the students are soon whispering explanations to each other about the day’s lesson and eagerly answering questions that Miller poses directly (“Robert, in the back row?” and “Margie, from Buffalo?”) as he walks briskly up and down the aisles, pausing at the front of the classroom just long enough to scribble some colorful diagrams of molecules and chemical reactions on the blackboard.

“In my class, there’s no PowerPoint, there are no movies, no blowing up things to create excitement. There’s six blackboards, a lot of chalk, and a lot of actively asking the students questions,” Miller says, joking that the multi-colored chalk is as fancy as he gets. “I try very hard to create an environment where there’s active learning, where it’s a discussion.”

Silia DeFilippis, a pre-med sophomore in Miller’s class last semester, appreciated the professor’s enthusiastic approach and personal touch. “It’s obvious he’s excited for us to learn,” she says. “You can tell he loves teaching and interacting with students. You go to his office hours once, and he knows your name.”

Throughout the semester, Miller periodically refers back to the technical paper he hands out on the first day of class as he covers bits and pieces of the complex principles involved (how certain bonds are made and broken, why molecules have the shapes they do, how they react with one another), allowing the students to track their progress as the work slowly becomes more and more understandable.

“It was very satisfying that the paper started to make sense. It wasn’t a trivial bit of science,” says sophomore Rob Tunney. He added that he, like “anyone in their right mind,” was dreading the class at the outset but that, by the end, he was more interested in chemistry than he had ever been before.

Miller weaves other real-world applications into his weekly lesson plans to keep things interesting and accessible. “He always ties in what we’re learning to current research,” says DeFilippis. “He wants us to stretch the limits of our imagination and think about how all this applies to real research and medicine. It made the material much more immediate and much more relevant.”

The students aren’t the only ones learning. “Students will often ask questions that seem on the surface to be very naïve, but turn out to be very, very penetrating, causing me to really assess whether or not our understanding is right, or whether there’s a different way to view things,” Miller says.

In fact, the changing nature of science is a fundamental lesson the chemistry professor works hard to convey. A few minutes before the end of class on the last day, Miller imparts one last lesson - not about organic chemistry, but the bigger scientific endeavor: “Remember, everything you’ve learned this semester is subject to change when better experiments and theories come along.”

“We can hand down principles and explain how we know them to be true, but there’s so much more that we don’t know than we do know,” he says. “This foundation puts the students in a place to define the frontiers of science for the next generation. In fact, they are the next generation.”

But what of the final verdict? After asking how many people were dreading the class on the first day, and seeing how many hands are held up, Miller asks the truly telling question: How many were pleasantly surprised? The hands remain high in the air.

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin:, 203-432-8555