Class Act: Chemistry 101


As a chemistry major at the University of Minnesota, Kelsey Boyle kept a laser-like focus on her core classes, which left little room to explore the life sciences. Despite her interest, during her senior year, “I was afraid to take a biochemistry class because I didn’t know if I had the background,” she says. Looking back, Boyle—now a fourth-year graduate student in a bioinorganic chemistry laboratory at Caltech—says she wishes there had been more opportunities to explore different fields in college.

Graduate student Kelsey Boyle, who is co-teaching (with Rebekah Silva), a tutorial course on DNA and cancer for the newly reinvented Chemistry 101. Photo/Caltech

Graduate student Kelsey Boyle, who is co-teaching (with Rebekah Silva), a tutorial course on DNA and cancer for the newly reinvented Chemistry 101. Photo/Caltech

Boyle and fellow fourth-year graduate student Rebekah Silva have found a way to offer Caltech undergraduates just that kind of opportunity: a low-stakes way to explore topics in chemistry that pique their interest. The pair, both of whom hold student leadership positions at the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO), launched a reinvented course this spring: Chemistry 101.

Organized as a group of six tutorials, Ch 101 focuses on topics outside of the main chemistry curriculum, including offerings on the history of inorganic chemistry (taught by postdocs William Wolf and Allegra Liberman-Martin), chemical nanoscience (Katherine Rinaldi and postdoc Carlos Read), ultrafast laser spectroscopy and microscopy (postdoc Mohammed Hassan), and astrochemistry (Olivia Wilkins and Cam Buzard), as well as a survey of chemical biology literature (Sam Ho and Bryce Jarman) and a look at trends in cancer treatment strategies (Boyle and Silva).

With these bite-sized tutorials, which undergrads can take either for a grade or as pass/fail, “students get a chance early on to explore an area with little risk,” says Silva.

Boyle says one of the pair’s inspirations for the course was a Caltech biology tutorial course known as Bi 23. Though Boyle and Silva are both chemists, they were familiar with that course and speculated that the format—small classes taught by graduate students and postdocs, and focusing on the study of topics not covered in core courses—could translate well to the chemistry division. Thanks to their experience as TAs for the general chemistry lab at Caltech and as co-directors of the Caltech Project for Effective Teaching (part of CTLO), Boyle and Silva were well equipped to design the course framework, after which they invited topic and curriculum proposals from their peers.

“I was greatly influenced by great teachers I’ve come across. I also had opportunities to tutor in college and found a lot of purpose from it,” says Silva, who graduated from Stanford in 2012. “I wanted to take the next step of creating course content and being the instructor.”

A number of chemistry grad students found the opportunity to not only be an instructor but also shape a class—from the choice of topic on up to the specifics of the format—quite a draw. Olivia Wilkins, a first-year graduate student, is excited about the opportunity Ch 101 is providing for her to bring her fascination with astrochemistry, the topic of the tutorial class she is co-teaching with fellow graduate student Cam Buzard, to Caltech’s undergrads. “I had this vision of sharing it with people and immediately a course outline popped into my head,” she says. Having had little exposure to this emerging field while an undergraduate at Dickinson College, Wilkins had a hunch students would be intrigued by what she calls “the forensic science of space.“

Silva, too, is excited by the possibilities of looking at pedagogy within a more discussion-based class and hopes her students will also take away from it a new way of understanding information. “The way I understand, for example, nucleic acid biology is very different from when I was an undergraduate,” she says. “We thought it would be great to structure a class to help students organize information more in a way that an expert does. We’ll help them make that leap.“

To help the graduate students and postdocs make a similar type of leap into teaching, each grad student or postdoc consults with the CTLO and has a faculty mentor. These faculty mentors—Professor of Chemical Physics Mitchio Okumura; Professor of Chemistry Brian Stoltz, a recent Feynman Prize awardee; Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering David Tirrell; and Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry Harry Gray—are known among students as inspiring and gifted educators. Postdoc William Wolf, who is co-teaching his class on inorganic chemistry with fellow postdoc Allegra Liberman-Martin, says the pair has appreciated the advice of their mentor, Harry Gray, who has been teaching for well over 50 years and shared advice on lesson planning and judging what students are capable of handling. “Harry is super nice and extremely enthusiastic,” says Wolf. “He cares a lot about the undergrads.”

For his part, Gray is impressed with the dedication of the rookie professors. “The people who signed up and put in proposals are kids who already love teaching, so they’re just honing their skills,” he says. “It’s easier to work with them because they really want this and they’re fired up.”

—Judy Hill