Thomas Cech is well recognized by the scientific community and as Colorado’s first Nobel Prize Laureate. A distinguished professor of chemistry and the director of CU Boulder BioFrontiers Institute, Cech has dedicated his career to scientific discovery. Yet, Cech is also well known by scores of first-year students who have taken his general chemistry course. They know him as an advocate for science education and a passionate educator.
On Thursday, Aug. 31, Cech will deliver the keynote talk, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Classroom,” at the 2017 Best Should Teach Lecture and Awards Ceremony. The event will honor four CU Boulder faculty members, 48 lead graduate teachers in the Graduate Teacher Program, and four local teachers with Best Should Teach Gold and Silver Awards.
Best Should Teach faculty award recipients include:
Teacher honorees from local school districts include:
The Best Should Teach Initiative celebrates excellence in teaching and academic leadership. The late Lindley and Marguerite Stiles established the initiative in 1996, and the annual Best Should Teach Ceremony is co-hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate Teacher Program, and the School of Education. Stiles’ motto is inscribed on the CU Boulder Education Building: “To those to come, I leave the flame. Hold it as high as you can reach. If a better world is your aim, all must agree: the best should teach.”
We sat down with Professor Cech to find out what the Best Should Teach theme means to him and how his experiences in the classroom have impacted his broader work.
Q. What do you enjoy most about teaching first-year students and undergraduates?
Cech: I love the way freshmen are so engaged, so eager for a new style of learning. Many of them are right out of high school, so – by the way you teach the class – you can send them a message: you’re not in high school anymore, you’re in a community of scholars where it’s “cool” to be excited about chemistry! And most of them respond very well.
Q. How has your role as an educator and your work with students informed your research and scholarship?
Cech: In many ways, but I’ll mention just two. First, the fundamental concepts of chemistry are applicable to the biochemistry that occurs inside living human cells, the subject of my research. So having those concepts fresh in mind makes me a better scientist. Second, on a completely different level, as an educator you learn to explain things very clearly, logically and concisely. That skill is hugely important in talking to researchers in your lab and when giving lectures around the world. I’m often at a conference and hear a brilliantly presented research talk, and then the flash of recognition: she probably teaches undergraduates!
Q. What does it mean to you to be recognized throughout your career for your excellence in teaching in addition to your contributions to research?
Cech: I’ve always thought that teaching and research go hand-in-hand. As my friend Jeremy Knowles once told me, to be a professor is to profess!
Q. Does the Best Should Teach theme resonate with you and if so, why?
Cech: Absolutely. After the Nobel, I insisted on teaching large freshman chemistry courses (and then noticed that some of my distinguished research colleagues were standing in line to do the same!). CU Boulder has many fine instructors who are not research-active but are expert teachers, in many cases better than distinguished researchers. I applaud them! Still, there’s a special ‘chemistry’ (pun intended) that can occur when a distinguished researcher inserts one of their own discoveries into a lecture and the class lights up. That’s a wonderful thing and good to celebrate.
What: 2017 Best Should Teach Lecture and Awards Ceremony
When: Thursday, Aug. 31, 6-7:30 p.m.
Where: University Memorial Center Ballroom
Free and open to the public