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Christopher Barrett

Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science

What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?

I try to bring in as much current research as possible. If papers and research topics are carefully chosen, they can illustrate the integration of concepts for students, even those at beginning levels. The response from the students is great, and for many, this is the most interesting part of the course. For example, I recently brought in a wonderful article from the front page of the New York Times about a Harvard professor who revolutionized medicine with an invention being called “duct tape for doctors.” This professor was inspired by gecko lizards and the stickiness of their feet. He did some microscopy to study this sticky substance and then copied it to make biodegradable tape for surgical use with humans. I brought this article to class because it is a real example of basic physical chemistry.

How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?

With large classes I have no choice but to use a multiple-choice exam. With my smaller classes (125 students) I use short answers, and even so, it still takes 15 minutes to grade one exam. So at 125 students, that’s about 40 hours of work for one exam. With my smallest course in advanced materials, students write long research projects worth 30-40% on a topic of their choice. This year, a woman on the McGill swim team studied the laser swimsuits worn in the last Olympics. She researched what are they made of and whether they work. It was fantastic. I learn more than the students from all this.

What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you?

The most important thing that I would like to impart to my chemistry students is the integration of what they’ve studied for four years and the application of these concepts to the real world. For students outside my discipline, I would like them to appreciate the basics of chemistry. I teach so many pre-med students who are dragged kicking and screaming to the Chemistry department, and I tell them, “My job this year is to try to prove to you why we make this a required course—why you need this course to be a doctor, why you need this course to graduate in biochemistry and biology.”

How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?

What is really fun for me is showing the limitations of the textbook because as soon as the textbook is four or five years old, parts of it become out-of-date. I did this in class the other day. I flipped open the textbook to a section on vision, which is shown as a set of orange boxes separated by black arrows. This is absolutely meaningless and doesn’t illustrate how vision works. Then I show the students a picture of how we currently understand the mechanism of vision. It was fantastic!

Also, I try to bring in examples of papers that have come out in the last year. Students really click in to brand new research that nobody else has seen before. They like it when I can say, “Last year’s class couldn’t have done this because it did not exist. Here is a paper that just came out using DNA to make little nano structures.” It’s an exciting time for these areas of science because there are really cool papers coming out and if it makes the front page of the New York Times, then it is important and then everybody can understand it. I can treat my small class (125- 200 students) as a discussion group—I get to know the students and can take a lot of questions. If I sense there is general interest, we can stop and pause the class and go off topic for 15 minutes.

What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?

One thing I’ve learned that I try to impart to young faculty is that there is a lot more latitude and freedom to shape a course than they might realize. You can walk into class with the New York Times from that morning and just change your lecture and talk about it. This is good for students as long as you are on topic and lead a stimulating intellectual discussion at a high level. If two-thirds of the course is solid, the rest can be used to discuss what’s interesting and current this year. At the same time, the course can’t be fluff. These students are applying to med school and we have to give them a degree. It is okay to have some sizzle under the steak but you can’t have sizzle without the steak.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?

My advice to undergraduates is to start thinking instead of just memorizing. Stop loading information into your short-term memory and then dumping it out on the exam and then not really seeing what it means—you might as well have not taken the course a year later.

When we had our fourth temperature high record in a row, I switched the topics around and moved up global warming a little bit, and we talked about this. We talked about how heat sinks and temperature rises. I realized that a lot of the students didn’t really know how heat was transferred. I realized they can solve advanced differential equations on heat transfer but they don’t know how to properly cool a bottle of champagne. You can bring it down from shelf temperature to a drinkable six degrees in about six minutes if you take a giant spaghetti pot, add cold water out of your tap and ice and just stir it around. Your freezer is going to take an hour to do that. It’s convection, but the main thing is heat capacity. Ultimately, I want students to be able to make connections between the science and the real world.

Why do you teach?

The first time in my life when I didn’t teach, I wasn’t very happy. I really enjoyed my graduate career. It was a nice healthy balance of doing some research, some assistant teaching, and some work around the university. When I went on post-doc for a couple of years, I was helping with administration and doing research but something was missing. I didn’t have a chance to teach and I really missed it. So I decided I didn’t want to be a full-time researcher, I wanted to do research at the university. I teach because I think that’s just what my natural profession is. It just feels like my natural calling, I guess. It’s what I enjoy doing. And we are so lucky at McGill. We get to teach Canada’s best students who come with amazing attitudes and want to learn.

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