Assistant Professor of Chemistry Heather Patrick


Live and let learn
By Alec T. Young 03Ox 05C

Off Highway 278 East near Oxford College, a Kroger grocery store anchors a strip mall filled with small specialty shops and restaurants. The parking lot drops off to a gully through which runs a modest stream. The water cuts through overgrown grass and flows out of sight into the woods; a rusty shopping cart is half submerged among floating cans and bobbing trash.     

The ten-year-old girl at my side scrunches her face in disgust.

"We drink that?" she asks.  

I look at her and try not to lose my footing on the muddy hill.

"We do," I reply.

She bends down, reaches her little fist out over the water and dangles a thermometer just barely over the surface.

"Like this?" she says and pauses.

"Yep, place it halfway in."

She does and counts out thirty seconds just as I instructed her. The two boys in my group start to fight over the yellow pencil to write the temperature on the clipboard.

Along this section of the stream, twelve students from Assistant Professor of Chemistry Heather Patrick's Chemistry 100 lab have joined two van loads of kids from the local Boys and Girls Club. In teams of two, the Oxford students lead the elementary school children through the process of testing the water quality of the stream.

When Patrick assigned the teams, she placed my lab partner and me in charge of two African-American boys tugging at their T-shirts and a young girl with braids who assured me she was more mature then her two fellow classmates. Standing in front of my group, sun glaring in my eyes, I attempt explain exactly what it is we are doing.

"Okay," I tell the kids. "We are here to run tests on the water and report our findings to the mayor of the city."

The boy with a red-and-black basketball outfit shakes his head.

"The city is going to look at experiments we do?" he asks. "We're kids."

"Someone has to do it," I reply.

Writer Alec Young 03Ox 05C recounts his personal experiences at Oxford here.

Explaining to fifth graders how chemistry is involved with ensuring water quality is Patrick's way of helping me understand why I was required to pass what I felt was a completely irrelevant class (I had already planned to be a creative writing major at Emory). Faced with the challenge of teaching the importance of the water quality to a fifth grader, Patrick says, "you're suddenly learning on a much deeper level."

Patrick believes chemistry traditionally has been considered an "emotionless field" where the professor's job has been to merely put forth the facts, which students are expected to cram into their brains.

While attempting to teach Chemistry 100, a course requirement for non-science majors, she knew the majority of the students were taking the course only to fulfill the requirement. The atmosphere for learning was dreary.

"It's incredibly hard to reach students who think what they are doing is a waste of time," says Patrick.

She explains that many times students develop a phobia about the subject and are convinced they cannot understand the material.

"Students shut down before the teaching even begins," she says.

To engage her students, she set out to illustrate chemistry's place in the real world. For a lab experiment involving the testing of water quality, Patrick pulled her students out of the laboratory and took them to a water source that just happened to feed directly into Oxford's drinking water. Patrick took surveys of the students' feelings towards chemistry before and after their experiences with this teaching method, known as Theory Practice Service Learning or TPSL.

"The results were astounding," she says. The surveys revealed dramatic changes in attitudes toward the study of chemistry as well as improved self-confidence. She has now taken her research to conferences all over the country, and the scholarship of teaching continues to be a large part of the research she does at Oxford.

TPSL is not new to colleges and universities, but Oxford is trying to make the methodology a fixed part of undergraduate education. Professor of Psychology Patricia Owen-Smith introduced TPSL to Oxford in 1996 after reading an article in a research journal. TPSL is now a part of courses in the fields of English, psychology, sociology, women's studies, anthropology, chemistry, math, and music, with roughly 80 percent of Oxford students participating.

"These practices help students see the material come alive," Owen-Smith says. "If all we are doing is giving students facts that they can't apply to the world, I'm not sure we're educating them."

Tucked away in rural Newton County, thirty-eight miles southeast of Emory's Atlanta campus, Oxford College houses a student body that hovers around six hundred students. The college focuses on what Dean Dana Greene 71G considers "the first two crucial years of undergraduate education" and offers a personal and close-knit community as an alternative to Emory's much larger undergraduate program.

Oxford's signature mission is to serve Emory as a "laboratory of teaching and learning." The school encourages professors to make their teaching the subject of scholarship, as well as to conduct research in their respective disciplines.  

For the past five years Oxford has been one of twelve cluster leaders for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a national and international center whose sole purpose is "to encourage, uphold, and dignify the profession of the teacher and the cause of higher education." As a cluster leader, Oxford joins a pool of much larger institutions, among them Georgetown University, Indiana University, and the University of Notre Dame.

"We are one twentieth the size of the next smallest university," says Dean of Academic Affairs Kenneth Linville. "Our [area of expertise] is the relationship of the cognitive and affective, but it's really the relationship between the heart and the head.

"The instructor is haunted by the gap of what is being taught and what the student is learning," says Linville, who also is   a professor of philosophy. "And what the scholarship of teaching and learning does is to help us identify that gap and then figure out ways to narrow it and ideally close it."

Oxford College revolves around the Quad, which unites the campus. As the bell chimes in the Seney Hall clock tower, students flood off the Quad and into classrooms in the surrounding buildings. Dean for Campus Life and Community Affairs Joseph Moon is frequently spotted hiking from building to building, stopping occasionally to sit under a tree and converse with a student. The small size of the school allows Moon to know most of the students. "I at least recognize all their faces," he says.

Moon spends the rest of his time in his office on the second floor of the Card Student Center. Throughout his years with the school he has come to believe that Oxford breeds a relationship that encourages excellence.

"The environment here lends an appreciation for learning and also for the teacher, so when they go to the Atlanta campus they are not intimidated by their professors--I hope--and they'll go and talk to them during office hours."    

Oxford's intimacy, he believes, fosters this sort of confidence.  

"Learning occurs in the classroom and out," he says. "This is a community of living and learning. It's important for students to see their professors as more than just faculty, but also people with families and different political views."

Oxford's status as a two-year school allows student life to be more accessible and generates a rapidly changing environment. Students have the opportunity--and responsibility--to tackle leadership roles very early in their academic career.

"At a four-year school, new students make up little more than a fourth of the student body, and they are learning the traditions of one that has preceded them," Moon says. "At Oxford new students are the majority. They still look up to the sophomores, but they aren't bound by that model."

Students at Oxford have a strong hands-on sense of ownership towards the school, and from the moment they hit the ground they are taking up leadership roles. Moon notes that "the sophomores lead everything from student government, social clubs, to serving as RAs, and the freshmen join everything."

Between 85 and 90 percent of Oxford's graduating class continue to one of the undergraduate programs at Emory. Out of those, only one percent leave Emory for academic reasons. Dean Greene believes that is "proof positive of what we are doing here." While many students choose to go to Oxford because of the smaller class size and easier access to leadership opportunities, some are accepted who were denied access to Emory University or were wait-listed and have SAT scores lower than Emory's average range.

"But when you leave this program," Greene says, "you are prepared to compete with students at Emory. . . . We know that a whole slew of our student go on to become Phi Beta Kappa, Kenneth Cole and Bobby Jones scholars."

Greene is impassioned when she speaks of the achievements and success of Oxford students and wants to pinpoint what exactly it is about Oxford that breeds a disproportionate number of leaders and exceptional scholars for the school's size.

Three leads in Emory's 2004 fall production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum were filled by Oxford continuees. The 2004 Student Government Association (SGA) president, Jimin Kim, got her start in student government as a freshman senator at Oxford. Shortly before her, Euler Bropleh 04C served as SGA president.

Reflecting on the student body at Oxford, Moon says he is constantly "on his toes. You can't relax and say that's the way we've always done things. That's just not the way it works at Oxford."

The biggest change that Moon has witnessed over his fifteen years at Oxford is the increased ethnic and religious diversity of the student body.

"Today we are Emory's most diverse school, which has added a lot of richness to this program," Moon says.

But even with Oxford's changing student culture, Moon stresses that he could speak to a student from ten years ago and they would "talk about the quality of the experience, personal interactive classes and availability of professors after hours. The student today would still recognize that."



© 2005 Emory University