As chemistry, chemical engineering, and materials science are becoming more and more interdisciplinary and diverse, its information volume is growing rapidly. A teaching paradigm which primarily concentrates on conveying facts and data is clearly unsustainable, and it is furthermore unsuitable to serving the needs of today’s students.
I believe that a successful teaching approach has to first and foremost channel the essence of a given subject rather than stressing the accumulation of factual knowledge. It has to emphasize its underlying structure, conceptual framework, core ideas, and overarching themes before going into the details of the subject matter. Modern classroom teaching has to carefully develop an eagle-eye view to provide students with an orientation for their field of study. On the one hand, this approach fosters a more solid understanding of a subject as a whole rather than as a string of information. On the other hand, students learn the course material more efficiently if they encounter it with an awareness of the outlines of the overall subject. They can put new information into its context right away, and see the pieces fall into their sketched out places.
It is natural and inevitable that students forget the details they have learned over time if they do not apply them regularly. It is all the more important that they retain the key ideas which transcend the immediate classwork. In order to reinforce these fundamentals they have to constantly be revisited from different perspectives throughout a course. Rather than linearly traversing the class material, the latter has to be arranged to accentuate the take-home messages.
Having established the notion of prioritizing structure over details, I will now consider an important aspect of introducing the former by means of chemical concepts and models. Concepts and models are powerful tools in both research and teaching. They allow us to rationalize knowledge and condense complicated physical situations. A prime example is the ubiquitous reference to molecular orbitals in order to explain chemical properties, bonding, and reactivity. From the perspective of a theoretician, it is particularly important, though, that concepts and models are introduced with great prudence. If utilized in a careless fashion they can have severely adverse effects on the development of students. In the worst case, they can blur the understanding of more rigorous theories, mislead, cause over-interpretation of data, introduce rigid preconceptions, entice intellectual laziness, and curb creativity. It is not enough to employ concepts and models as mnemonics: as an educator, I have to develop where they come from, what they actually mean, and what their limits are. It is a challenge to reconcile the need for simplification and the dangers of oversimplification, but it is ultimately also an opportunity to exercise the critical thinking of students.
Once the conceptual framework of a course is laid out, computational chemistry can be a valuable aid in filling it with the substance of a subject matter. I am a firm advocate of using hands-on simulations and calculations to make both empirical as well as theoretical course contents more concrete and tangible. While it is obvious that a practical component will be beneficial, e.g., to a course in quantum chemistry, I believe that a computer-aided approach can also engage students in other classes. Computational visualization techniques are an additional, readily available asset in classroom teaching. Perhaps the most striking omission in contemporary chemistry curricula is that of programming skills. I strongly believe that basic coding experience is today just as important as laboratory skills. Considering the emergence of very powerful and easy-to-learn/use programming languages such as Python, there is no excuse to neglect them any longer.
Computational chemistry is, in conclusion, a valuable didactic tool and I want to promote its consequent use in classroom teaching. This can be implemented in fully integrated courses or by developing semi-independent modules.
A final, more general point I want to touch on is the use of electronic aids in classroom teaching. While I am skeptical about the value of some of the technical gadgets that have emerged in recent years, I strongly support the use of Eric Mazur’s “Just-in-time” approach. The latter is based on a real-time feedback that students give during their classes via “clickers”. It substantially improves the attention of the students by making lessons interactive, and it instantaneously identifies problems in the learning process.