Thomas Cech

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.”

Archived comments

My man!


4/13/2009 2:43:13 PM

Thrilled to have you back, Professor Cech!

Now,… let’s get Carl back.


4/13/2009 4:03:12 PM

Yeah!This is a great day for Boulder!Thank you for returning.


4/13/2009 4:26:02 PM

Chemistry in any relationship is so important……..Welcome back Dr.


4/13/2009 5:04:07 PM

Welcome back, Dr. Cech!!Great to have you back home!!


4/13/2009 6:43:05 PM

Good news!


4/13/2009 7:09:54 PM

The Alpha and Omega. Dr. Cech on one side and Wardo on the other.

4/13/2009 8:09:22 PM

Let’s just hope he doesn’t write any essays that piss off the CU Republican cabal.


4/13/2009 10:59:09 PM

Dr. Cech, Thank you!


4/14/2009 8:20:00 AM

A top-notch educator and researcher who has achieved the Nobel and run world-class HHMI, wow. CU, Boulder, and Colorado are fortunate. Welcome back Dr. Cech.


4/14/2009 8:37:59 AM

I am very glad to see Dr. Cech return to CU and don the teaching mantle once more.But if he and others think his return to the undergraduate classroom will motivate other full professors to do the same, then they are sadly and seriously mistaken.That didn’t happen while Dr. Cech was here, even after he won the Nobel Prize.There was no steady stream of his colleagues into classroom work, save for the teaching of graduate seminars and a few graduate level courses.The culture of higher education precludes that, and while it is nice that the new institution being created will encourage more active teaching of undergraduates, don’t look for any serious follow through or change, more’s the pity.

Laurie Langdon is quoted in the story saying that faculty are getting involved in ‘various ways’ in teaching.It is noteworthy that she couldn’t cite any specific examples but could only say something vague.A major research university like CU leaves the bulk of teaching to graduate student Teaching Assistants, assistant professors, and full-time instructors.Senior faculty are expected to do research, not teach.This is not to say that senior faculty don’t teach any undergraduate courses.They do at the upper division level, but contact with freshmen and sophomore students is uncommon.That has been the way of it for decades, and there is no reason to believe that will change with Dr. Cech’s return.I hope I am wrong.We’ll see.

4/14/2009 8:40:51 AM

I hear he has great chemistry with his students.


4/14/2009 12:42:53 PM

I bet the gym teacher gives him a wedgie to welcome him back.


4/14/2009 2:26:49 PM

Whatever, I want the guy from Breaking Bad to teach my class…he cooks the best blue ice ever!


4/14/2009 4:15:01 PM

I’m not glad to see him return. He’ll just be taking up a slot that should be held by a recent Ph.D. or new faculty hire. If Cech really wants to encourage young people to enter science careers he should be ensuring that tenure-track positions are available – otherwise students will rightfully say “why bother studying science when there aren’t any jobs?”. To paraphrase Gov. Lamm, Cech “has a duty to retire”.


4/15/2009 5:43:11 AM

Tom is a good guy who really has education in mind. Freshmen need encouragement from rock stars like Carl and Tom. Is education really about jobs?

Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Science discovers things that engineers turn into products, which creates jobs. To learn about our physical universe with only a job in mind is very short sighted. Let’s hope that Tom can instill the value of education for the knowing, rather than the value of a paycheck.


4/15/2009 11:18:30 AM

Hair Trigger—I agree with those sentiments entirely, but try selling that to someone born in 1990. You might as well bang your head against the wall.


4/16/2009 12:09:20 PM

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