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Learning with Professor Thomas Berke

Contributed by Thomas Berke

The thought of the organic chemistry strikes fear in the hearts of most students. This has never been a descriptor applied to my organic chemistry course, during which I rely on active learning and guided inquiry. These approaches provide a more exciting course of study, as the information delivered during lessons is more accessible and interesting. Although this is a highly unusual method of teaching for most, I find, given the opportunity to have a say and actively engage with ideas, students construct their own learning. At the heart of the process is a long list of questions I created, grouped by concept, that provoke students to recall, as needed and in their own way, topics in general chemistry and apply them to organic reaction mechanisms, i.e. how organic works.

Group work is the key to learning in my classes. I assign the students to groups of three or four and ask them to attack a set of questions connected to the topic(s) at hand. Students help each other examine new concepts. As the groups work, I move about the room, checking in and reviewing the answers they have formulated. I ask more in-depth questions to be certain students understand what they have discovered. This helps extend their knowledge and realize their understanding of a concept. Once a group masters a subject, I ask them to teach others. At the end of each class, I review the day’s questions and address the feedback from the teams. During these summaries, I am inundated with students’ ponderings and insights. These sessions are both lighthearted and intense and result in confident students who are jazzed for their next organic chemistry meeting. In addition, the outcomes provide me with essential data about each student’s progress and the direction and pace of the class.

Students enjoy working with classmates; class participation is active, and students feel free to ask questions of each other. They even challenge me if they think I am wrong. Students have said they love this approach because the class is lively and fluid. They freely express an opinion, even when uncertain of their response. They take greater risks. Completion rates in organic chemistry are quite high as is the class average and the measurable depth of understanding.

Many of these students go on to take MCATS for entrance into medical schools. During this exam, they must find solutions to organic problems they have never encountered. They approach this using skills they have been taught in my organic chemistry class. They search their knowledge of general chemistry to answer these new problems. My students report having an advantage, as they have learned how to use prior knowledge to inform their answers. This same skill has proven valuable when students enter into careers in research.

In addition, working in teams provides the soft skills Industry is desperate for. These include confidence and the ability to collaborate, problem solve, think critically, innovate and communicate effectively. For decades, Industry has complained they can find people with the skills for the job but are far less likely to find people with the necessary soft skills too. The active learning and guided inquiry environment I create has proven effective in teaching these skills. The approach also helps students muster the courage to take other challenging courses and to complete their degrees.

Alongside teaching chemistry, I have had the pleasure of being involved in new initiatives. In 1970, way before the PC revolution, I created a group that convinced colleagues to assimilate technology into classrooms. This led to my becoming director of Educational Computing in the early ’80s when Apple was getting off the ground with its very popular IIe and 16K was a lot of memory. There have been a lot of similar innovations over the years. More recently, I created the Global Citizenship and The Innovation Net¬work (TIN) Projects. Among my goals was introducing global issues into every classroom, with instructors centering their assignments around world news. From the more obvious class, English, to more difficult to imagine, math, this has taken hold. Brookdale students are empowered to become globally aware and alert. Through multidisciplinary projects such as these, teams of Brookdale students from varying majors, working with increasing independence, come together to study and solve community problems, both locally and globally. Innovative approaches and thinking have a vital place in education at all ages.

Thomas BerkeThomas Berke, Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry, Brookdale Community College, hired in 1970, was the first director of Educational Computing, then Energy Conservation. He is also the recipient of the Barringer Award in 2014. In addition, he is a flutist with the Monmouth University Chamber Orchestra and The Persichetti Five woodwind quintet.

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