BOULDER, Colo. –
Tom Cech won the 1989 Nobel prize in chemistry for discovering that RNA could act as a catalyst for cellular reactions.
Now, after a 10-year hiatus from his faculty position at the University of Colorado, it’s Cech who may become a catalyst when he returns to the Boulder campus, persuading more professors to get involved in the science of good teaching.
Cech, who returns to CU full-time this month, is volunteering to instruct freshman-level chemistry in the fall.
Just as he once showed that RNA â long thought to be the relatively dull, half-stranded messenger for its more glamorous cousin, DNA â could do more than scientists thought, he now hopes to show an auditorium packed with hundreds of students that they can do more than they think, at least when it comes to chemistry.
“I’m interested in teaching science at the introductory level because so many students come to the university with a lot of interest in science, but after one year of large impersonal courses, about half of them are driven away,” he said in an e-mail Monday.
A report from the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, released a decade ago, found that students don’t often interact with some of the brightest scientists employed at the school, who tend to be rewarded for excellent research but not for excellent instruction.
To combat the drift of students away from science â and to engage professors in the science of teaching â CU has created the Science Education Initiative under the direction and vision of Carl Wieman, another CU Nobel laureate and passionate teacher.
The 2-year-old initiative has staffed science departments with postdoctoral “teaching fellows” to coach professors; created learning goals for many core classes; and produced better assessment tools for measuring progress toward the goal.
And while faculty members from all five participating departments have reported changing the way they teach because of the institute’s influence, chemistry has the least participation compared to geology, physics, biology and integrative physiology. Cech’s willingness to teach first-year chemistry, and his desire to do it well, could change that.
“I think he could be a very strong advocate within the department, and maybe the type of catalyst that will get more interest and more engagement among the faculty,” said Laurie Langdon, a science teaching fellow in CU’s chemistry department. “Quite a few of the faculty have already been involved in various ways, but there’s some potential for him to light even more of a fire and get things going a little more.”
Cech, who is stepping down from his position as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland to return to CU, met with Wieman last week to start sharpening his teaching skills.
“Since January 2000, … I’ve done no undergraduate teaching except for a couple of guest lectures,” Cech wrote in Monday’s e-mail. “So I’m looking forward to getting back into it in the fall.”