In Stanford professor Richard Zare’s introductory chemistry class, pickles get the juice and fruit is doused in liquid nitrogen. Conducting electricity through a gherkin and the like is part of what makes Zare, 60, both a noted and a captivating lecturer. Zare, who team teaches the class with Prof. Jim Collman, is also a National Medal of Science winner, former chair of the National Science Board and a pioneer in laser chemistry research. Honored several times for his teaching, Zare is an ardent defender of the need for hands-on classroom experiences in an age when computers are rapidly changing how students learn.
QUESTION: At this point in your career, why do you teach freshman chemistry?
ANSWER: In some sense, it’s self-renewal. That’s part of the reason why I enjoy it so much, because I’m teaching myself. When you teach freshman chemistry or freshman physics, you are always questioning the most fundamental assumptions of your field, where it starts.
The beauty about freshmen is freshmen are fearless about asking questions about everything. . . . It’s immensely stimulating. I go out from my classes on a high.
"I don’t see computers simply replacing teachers. We still gain so much from that human interaction."
Photo: Patrick Tehan
Do you enjoy the ‘‘performance’’ aspect of lecturing?
There’s a bit of performance. What matters most to me is there are rare moments of what you call an epiphany. You can see on the face of some student: A concept that was so mysterious becomes so real and simple and obvious. . . . Anything we really understand in some way is always simple.
What is online learning doing to the college lecture?
The teacher’s role is to inspire students to learn, inspiring students to teach themselves. It is not the information that is being conveyed, but the motivation of why you should acquire such information. The teacher is not the most efficient way to communicate information. A book or the Internet conveys much more information than a teacher, and generally more accurately.
The element we need of teachers is to allow students to understand why they want to learn something, to put it into a bigger context.
I think online learning is in its infancy, and we’re still learning how to use it. I am amazed to learn, as some students boast to me, that they’ve never left their dorm to go to the library. They use the Internet. But I don’t see computers simply replacing teachers. We still gain so much from that human interaction.
Students need each other, too. They learn from each other more than is recognized.
Can you get a meaningful education from an online university?
It certainly beats having no education at all. The largest growing university in the United States is Phoenix University.
How were we teaching a hundred years ago, and how does that compare to how we teach now? A hundred years ago, professors were standing in front of chalkboards talking to large classes. What are we doing now? I’m not saying we can’t learn that way, but the profession needs to be more efficient. But in the process of striving toward efficiency, we must not lose the human touch.
Have you seen a change in your students over the years, particularly with this generation raised on MTV, video games and computers?
There’s an obvious change. They tend to be less well-read. They tend to be wanting much more of an entertainment factor than was true 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t see them as being less serious or more serious. There’s a difference in our culture. We’re valuing a shared television experience but not a shared reading experience.
They’re much more computer literate and computer savvy, and that’s wonderful.