Mark Workentin, FCIC, is a professor of chemistry at Western University who is lauded for his entertaining and rigorous organic chemistry classes. He is a multi award-winning university teacher with honours including the OCUFA Excellence in Teaching Award and Western’s Pleva and Marilyn Robinson Awards.

CIC NEWS recently asked Workentin to share some insights from his years behind the lectern. (Although he says he rarely stands at the lectern)

Your students describe you as ‘hilarious’ – in a good way! Is that a deliberate part of your teaching strategy and if so, how do you think it helps chemistry students learn better?

Hilarious? Perhaps in an organic chemistry dad joke sort of way. I have a house filled with daughters who would likely say I am hilarious only in my own mind.

In every course I am involved in, I say to the participants that we are now ‘chemical family’ so I try to give them a sense of who I am outside of the lecture hall. I am the guy who always has a one-liner to add to the conversation … even when it falls flat.

I work very hard to show students that chemistry (orgo!) is fun, so I try to keep my energy up and find something fun(ny) in every topic we cover. If I don’t find the topics interesting and cool (even the 100th time I teach it), why should they?

These types of connections are what I miss most with the necessary move to asynchronous, online learning during COVID-19. The students are missing out on the passion we all want to show about our disciplines.

What is your teaching philosophy?

First, I am no teacher. I have not been trained or educated in teaching. Although, you could argue that with a PhD, I should have a philosophy.

I am more of a tour guide – you only get me for a short time. I give you teasers about a topic and then leave it to you to explore in depth what connects most to you or excites you most.

As a university professor, my goals in the lecture hall are to: 1) present core foundational material in a way that provides the necessary tools for students to build critical thinking competencies to problem solve. 2) provide an environment for creative exploration of the connections between the foundational material and the world around us. 3) foster an inclusive environment where different approaches are encouraged and, when they work, are celebrated. 4) do all this with the underlining message that learning and problem-solving is not a chore, but should be fun.

How does your teaching philosophy influence your approach – both during lectures and outside the lecture hall?

As I stated above, I welcome my classes by saying we are now family. That we will be there for each other while we are forced to be together (in class), but that we will retain this connection after we move on.

I ask them to challenge each other, support each other, not judge each other and have fun. The connection is harder with larger classes, especially when they are ‘enabling courses’ and not for chemistry majors.

But I tell students our time together is a life experience we have shared. Let’s not be afraid to make that connection in the future when we pass on campus, on the street, at a restaurant, etc.

One concrete way I try to do this is by hosting “Quaff with the Prof” sessions. In these sessions, I meet a group of students away from the lecture hall for coffee (or other) to talk about life beyond the classroom, hobbies, what excites them at the university.

During these times I try to show them that profs are regular people. That we were just like them at one point, and to use this connection to encourage them to not just focus on their program of study, but maintain hobbies and interactions that bring them joy.

Art by Ben Laxer, Undergraduate, Western University

You have used social media, including TikTok, in innovative ways in your teaching. Can you give an example of where you thought it worked well?

Creativity is the backbone of good science. I have always tried to find ways to foster and encourage it. Over the last several years I have challenged my students to find a creative way of teaching the community about why organic chemistry is important and how it is everywhere in the world around them. (Tell mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, little sister, Aunt Betty, what you learned in orgo this week in a way that is meaningful or connects them to orgo).

I have challenged them to make their own connections of the material to the world around them. These have taken the forms of infographics, songs, poems, painting, movies (#orgo2213connect, #orgo2213art).

Most recently, since TikTok became an early COVID-19 distraction, I challenged them to teach orgo through TikTok (#TikTorgo2213). The carrot is a bonus mark. But the goal is to encourage them to explore their creative, artistic side and to link it to their academic science passion.

Of course, this is also a way for me to promote science communication (#SciComm). It’s more and more important that scientists find ways to educate the general public so that science is something that is meaningful and can be trusted and not irrelevant ivory tower stuff.

The projects also help build other skills. Several students told me they learned how to use design tools in programs like Canva, how to edit videos and do digital illustrations – tools they then brought to other classes and other disciplines.

What about a time it backfired?

The only way these creative outlets backfire is when I execute them poorly. The success of these creative projects takes significant time for me to review and comment, especially in a course with 1,200-1,400 students. It backfires when I have failed to create a good rubric.

While some submissions are lazy and done only to get the ‘bonus,’ I have mostly been blown away by the creativity of these young scientists.

What is the single most important tool for you as a teacher?

An engaged student. When engaged, we can tackle anything together.