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 Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


Go Out and Teach! CU-Boulder Winter Commencement Address
Tom Cech, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, director of the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology

Congratulations, graduates! You should be especially proud of yourselves today. Do you know why? Because you are part of a new revolution, and the University of Colorado is leading this revolution. What revolution, you ask? No, I’m not talking about the switch from Styrofoam to paper soup bowls in the Alferd Packer Grill. The revolution is in undergraduate teaching and learning.

Many of you have participated in classes that are radically different from those experienced by students 10 years ago, or by your counterparts at other universities. Certainly it is different from when I taught freshman chemistry here in the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, education at CU was typical of that at other American research universities. It was considered “good teaching” if we presented material correctly and clearly in the time-honored lecture mode, and it was up to the students to learn it. Nobody discussed alternatives that might enhance student understanding and retention of the material.

At the time, my research lab was making some pretty exciting discoveries, but I found it equally exciting to share that sense of discovery with students, especially those just starting their own education in science. It’s fun to help students understand the science behind everyday observations like why snow often sublimates instead of melts in Boulder, or why salt and sugar dissolve in water but diamonds don’t. Or to explain Catalytic RNA to students, and show them how the fundamental chemistry they’ve learned still applies to these enormous molecules of life. And I find it very rewarding when I get the occasional letter or an email saying “You won’t remember me, but I was a student in your class many years ago, and it changed my life. I found this great career, and here’s what I’m doing now.”

So when I was called to Washington D.C. in 2000 to become the President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I made undergraduate science education one of my highest priorities. Why? Because our future success as a nation in a global economy depends on an educated population – and this will require an overhaul of how we think about education, especially in science, math and technology. At Howard Hughes, we consulted research in education and cognitive science – and our everyday experiences – and realized that the best way to learn is by active participation, not by passively listening to lectures. And so we used some of the substantial financial resources at Howard Hughes, spending $900 million over nine and a half years to stimulate active learning throughout our programs.

My other priority in Washington was to stimulate new approaches to the way that research is done. Because I think that, just like the old way of teaching isn’t necessarily the best way, neither is the old way of doing research. The model of the lone researcher working alone on his or her own narrow project is not always the best, and certainly not the only, way to solve problems – especially huge, important problems like climate change, or poverty, or curing diseases. So at Howard Hughes, we built a new campus on the banks of the Potomac to bring physicists and computer scientists together with neuroscientists to decipher a huge problem: how the billions of neurons in a brain are wired up and how this allows cognitive function.

After nine years in that administrative role, facilitating the research of others and the teaching of others, I decided I wanted to get back into the action, so I came back to Colorado half a year ago. What I found here is that a new revolution in interdisciplinary research was sweeping across campus. Interdisciplinary research institutes on campus were bringing different disciplines together to study energy or the environment or space. I’m now working with colleagues to establish an interdisciplinary research institute in the biosciences and biotechnology. You may have seen the big hole in the ground out East on
Colorado Avenue where in less than two years we will gather researchers from eight different departments to work under the same roof.

But back to my main topic: I also returned to CU to join a revolution in education. I was thrilled to find that science teaching had been transformed in my absence. I can brag about it openly, because I had nothing to do with it – it all happened while I was gone. My colleagues here were practicing exactly what we’d been preaching at Howard Hughes: that the emphasis needs to be on student learning, and that we need to be as scientific in judging the validity of our education methods as we are when we are trying to discover new principles of biology or physics in the research lab. Personal voting devices called “clickers” have taken over campus, and provide one tool to promote active learning by every student, even in a large-class format. Courses incorporate more student-to-student discussion of topics, rather than one-directional lectures. The scale of reforms at CU is tremendous, and really sets us apart from other universities. This past year, more than 9,000 students have experienced these transformed courses. The message is clear: CU is not satisfied to simply lecture. CU is committed to educate.

Some of the new programs are starting to impact K-12 teaching in Colorado, as well. The Colorado Learning Assistant Model – which was invented at CU-Boulder and now has spread to 14 other universities around the U.S − engages undergraduates as young as sophomores to improve student learning here on campus and simultaneously to fuel their passion to be future teachers. Both the Colorado Learning Assistant Model and a teacher certification program called CU Teach involve collaboration between the science departments and the School of Education. The students coming out of these programs are already starting to provide better-prepared teachers at the K-12 level.

But we have a problem. This teaching revolution is a big secret. Very few alumni know, many parents don’t know, the state legislature is in the dark. CU has become a national leader in transforming education and we’re now graduating students − YOU − who aren’t just capable of regurgitating information, but who are active learners, and able to creatively and maturely examine problems that come their way. We should be shouting this from the rafters! Sure, research advances are exciting and important. But so is great teaching!

What do I want you to learn from this story of revolution? One is to be proud of your alma mater - and of the people here who have questioned the status quo and are leading a revolution. Brag about it! Participate in it! Next, I invite you to go out and teach. Let some form of teaching be a part of your future. Some of you sitting here are going into teaching in a big way: you are already committed to the teaching profession, perhaps getting your start in CU-Teach or the Learning Assistant Model, or you’re going to Teach for America. But for those who are going to be doctors or lawyers or business people or journalists or engineers, I urge you to teach in small ways – perhaps one-on-one tutoring or mentoring, volunteering in a local school or community college, giving guest lectures in your area of expertise, or even just discussing what you have learned with your friends and family. Whether teaching in a big way or a small way, you will find that few activities are as personally rewarding and as critical to the future of our nation as sharing your knowledge and expertise with the next generation.

So go out and teach!

Cech is the first of four Nobel laureates at CU-Boulder. He teaches freshman chemistry and directs the CIMB. He returned to CU-Boulder in April after serving as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for 9 ½ years. He delivered his speech to 2,278 graduates at the Winter Commencement on Dec. 18, 2009.

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