by William Dichtel, Chemistry
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004
Teaching chemistry at Berkeley can be difficult at times because with such a large class, there is rarely one teaching method that every student can understand. Some students prefer to learn from a textbook, others need verbal communication and discussions, while others are much more visual. Organic chemistry is unavoidably visual, requiring complex drawings and graphs. Unfortunately, this presented a great challenge for Alice, a legally blind student who could only see a few inches in front of her eyes.
My first encounter with Alice was in the fall semester before I was her GSI. The course administrator knew that Alice would not pass Chemistry 3A that semester, and would be repeating the course in the spring. As an introduction to the process she asked me to help administer Alice’s final exam. During the exam, I wrote each problem so large that it took up the entire white board, careful to keep my writing at Alice’s eye level. Alice would then write the answer on an adjacent board. Administering Alice’s exam took five hours. From this beginning, I knew that working with Alice would be quite a challenge.
Students who succeed in organic chemistry develop the ability to look at a molecule written on a two-dimensional surface, imagine its three dimensional structure, and then apply chemical principles to predict its behavior. For example, we draw a simple molecule, cyclohexane, as a regular hexagon. However, in reality cyclohexane exists as a puckered, non-planar structure, and students must understand the consequences of the difference. Alice had difficulty seeing the flat structures in the first place, so it was even more difficult to communicate concepts that were based on three dimensional spatial reasoning.
Alice and I met every week for an hour that semester, during which I would administer the weekly quiz and then spend the extra time answering her questions. At first, I struggled to find ways that would allow her to grasp the concepts more readily, and became frustrated with my inability to “show” her what I was explaining. This was an important lesson as I realized that the onus was on me to teach effectively.
Over the course of the semester, I found ways to communicate more effectively. I brought a large organic chemistry model kit to her quizzes, which allowed her to see these three dimensional structures more readily. She was able to understand the folding of a complicated molecule and why reactions were more likely to occur at a less hindered area. We also found that many of her questions were better answered over email, because she could read it several times while also reading the text book.
Alice passed Chemistry 3A that semester, an accomplishment that speaks volumes about her incredible dedication and tenacity. She also went on to succeed in the second semester class, Chemistry 3B. Working with Alice, despite being difficult at times, made me a better and more creative teacher. Alice pushed me to be creative and challenged me to invent new ways of teaching, which I have used to complement my usual teaching methods.