Critical thinking, common read adding new stimuli to prof's teaching

October 28, 2011

Clint Chapple, department head and Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, has been shifting his teaching to thought challenges, not just information dissemination, and he says he's part of a campus trend that way. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

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Clint Chapple has spent time this fall asking his Biochemistry 100 students to think about piano tuners in Chicago and issues of ethics and science raised by Purdue's Common Reading Program selection.

Chapple, head and Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, finds it natural and obvious to seek excellence in research and teaching, even as he dispels any notion that he is a leader in pedagogy. He is, however, a leader in research -- he will be recognized with Purdue's highest research award, the Herbert Newby McCoy Award, to be presented Nov. 1 at a dinner following his public lecture.

"I think that all over campus, we're seeing people take more creative approaches to teaching, and setting aside quantity of data transferred as the only metric of success," he says. "So I think I'm one of many people who are trying to move in that direction."

The piano tuner challenge -- a "Fermi problem" in estimation through applying known or easily obtained facts -- is an example of his employing ways to provoke and develop critical thinking by students.

"With a little thought, students end up with a number that isn't crazy, that is within the realm of possibility," Chapple says, laughing. "Dale Whittaker and many other teaching scholars on campus have been imploring us for years to reduce content and elevate the amount of time that we devote in our teaching to working with information and critical thinking."

A different array of challenges faced his students when they discussed the year's Common Reading Program book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot." The book tells about Lacks, who died of cervical cancer and whose cells, known by researchers as "HeLa cells," were taken for study in a way that raises ethical concerns.

The choice of this particular book provided an opportunity for Chapple to connect his class to the work of JoAnn Suzich, a Purdue biochemistry alumna. Suzich (SOO-zick) was team leader in the creation of a vaccine for the human papilloma virus, the very virus that caused Lack's cervical cancer. Last spring, Suzich received an honorary doctorate from Purdue and was kind enough to return to speak to Chapple's first-year biochemistry class in person.

Chapple also invited Karl Brandt, professor emeritus of biochemistry, who is experienced in leading discussions of bioethics. The results of the three-session discussions were powerful, Chapple says.

"The students were very engaged," he says. "Dr. Brandt and I set clear expectations about civility, respecting each other's opinions" because people need a chance to work out their thoughts and grow in their thinking.

Chapple continues: "Maybe a half-dozen students came up to thank Suzich after her presentation, with one commenting that he hoped to have an impact like she has had. If you can galvanize one person's perspective on a career path, you've earned your pay."

Chapple also has altered the way he approaches the subject of biochemistry, where the action is too microscopic and often too fast to observe.

"For years I would teach my course by talking about hydrogen bonds and peptide bonds and then give an example to make it relevant," he says. "The way I've chosen to do it now is to start with the example as a kind of case study. Then I ask 'What do we need to know to understand this?' I think … I hope … it pushes them to think a little harder, and to make a stronger connection between the case and the subject."

Chapple says his leadership in teaching consists of overseeing undergraduate and graduate curriculum reviews in his department. He also mentors a postdoc who is involved with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) program "Deviating from the Standard" led by Professor Dennis Minchella that helps postdocs improve their teaching skills in preparation for seeking professorial positions. For pedagogical expertise at Purdue, Chapple notes the work of the Center for Instructional Excellence and the HHMI grant led by Marc Loudon, the Cwalina Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry, that is focusing on transforming the chemistry curriculum.

Chapple's new approaches, he says, are proving stimulating to students: "I think we've got to work harder at teaching students that they can understand complex material.

"It says to them, 'You're not in high school anymore. Here's a new set of challenges.' And I strongly believe that when you set high expectations for students, they live up to them."