Paul J. Toscano
The opportunity to instruct students of chemistry at a major institution of higher learning
at both the undergraduate and graduate levels was a major impetus in my decision to accept a position in the Department of Chemistry at the University at Albany. My commitment to the education of our students is as strong and enthusiastic today as when I first arrived at Albany.
During my many years here, I have had occasion to instruct students at vastly different levels
of understanding, as well as in diverse settings and surroundings. Although the number and cross section of students in a class may vary, I adhere to certain principles that I feel are paramount for getting complex ideas across to the people who are listening to me. In developing my teaching code, I have tried to extract the best features of instruction from teachers in my own past scholarly experience.
First, the most important aspect of any instruction in chemistry is whether the students comprehend the material in a manner in which they can apply and utilize it as a basis for study in more advanced courses and for everyday living. This is particularly challenging in the large, introductory chemistry courses where one must find a way to grab the attention and to keep the interest of students of differing backgrounds and abilities.
In the case of beginning students of chemistry, I feel that my goal is to try to help them to understand the beauty and logic of the discipline at a time in their studies when they easily can be turned off. For the advanced students, I want to rekindle that sense of wonder that originally led them to the study of chemistry. To this end, I try to develop dynamic, cogent lectures that incorporate the necessary basics with examples drawn from common experience. In order to keep the interest of the better-prepared students, I try to incorporate discussions of advanced concepts. I also draw on my own experiences as a student in order to understand the typical problem areas for my class; that is, I remember what concepts gave me pause to puzzle as a student and try to ensure that these areas are fully explained by me as an instructor. I have found that the timely injection of anecdotes from my personal experiences, as well as subtle humor, is useful for lightening the atmosphere in the classroom settings.
I have taught large lecture sections in Introductory Chemistry, as well as the companion problem-solving sections. In addition, I have instructed our seniors and graduate students in the more advanced concepts of Inorganic Chemistry. In the capacity as an inorganic chemistry professor, I have also introduced Inorganic Chemistry to students in our junior advanced laboratory and in an honors chemistry course. I also developed an advanced graduate course in the special topic area of group theory and symmetry with an emphasis on chemical applications. For all of these diverse areas of chemistry, from the introductory to the most complex, I endeavor to stay on top of current developments in the field for incorporation into the courses. This activity keeps the course material fresh and up-to-date for the students and for me.
I also feel that the laboratory experience is important to the education of chemistry students, in particular, and for the retention of science students, in general. In the case of required laboratory courses, I strive to choose laboratory experiments that illustrate basic chemical principles, which are still of interest and relevance to the students' collective worldly experience. I have also directed a number of graduate and undergraduate students in the laboratory in research and independent study courses. The undergraduates are given true research problems, rather than mere technician's work. Part of the learning process for all of the students has included writing rough drafts of at least parts of manuscripts, as well as disseminating their results in regular discussions with me or at scientific conferences. It is my observation that undergraduate students, who are given an opportunity to work in a research chemical laboratory, are more likely to stay in the sciences and go on to advanced degrees. Of my undergraduate students, eight have received advanced degrees or are in graduate programs in chemistry at other universities and the others are employed in chemical or allied fields of science.
I also maintain extensive office hours so that I can listen to the problems of the students, inside and sometimes outside of the course. I believe that listening is an important component of the teaching and mentoring process. I generally schedule one hour daily; however, I try to see students at any time that they happen to pop over. This is not an easy task, especially with some of my classes approaching 300 in number, but I feel that it is important for the retention of our science students. I have expanded my efforts in this area to include advisement of our undergraduate chemistry majors and mentoring of Presidential Scholars.
In summary, I am and will continue to be committed strongly to the ideal that one of the central pursuits of the University mission is the instruction and training of students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. This goal extends beyond the classroom to research activities and to the training of future practioners in the field of chemistry.