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National Science Foundation Honors Chemistry's Nicholas Turro for Distinguished Teaching

By Suzanne Trimel

Nicholas Turro

Columbia Professor Nicholas Turro joins a select group of six university science researchers and educators nationwide who will receive the 2002 National Science Foundation (NSF) Director's Awards for Distinguished Teaching Scholars. Turro, the William P. Schweitzer Professor of Chemistry and faculty member in three departments, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Earth and Environmental Engineering, will receive the award for creating new computer-based models for undergraduate chemistry studies and for developing mentoring programs that involve undergraduates as collaborators on faculty research. Turro's innovative teaching methods have been adopted by college science educators across the country.

Turro is a cutting-edge researcher who is leading advances in the use of photochemistry and spectroscopy to reveal the structure and dynamics of supramolecular systems. Since the start of the 1990s, he has been at the forefront of the development of information technologies for the teaching of science.

He has received nearly $2 million in funds over the past decade from the NSF, the Dreyfus Foundation, Columbia and others to develop computer software and web-based learning programs for teaching organic and physical chemistry and spectroscopy; many of these programs are used in college science courses nationwide.

The Distinguished Teaching Scholars awards were created in 2001 by NSF Director Rita Colwell to promote interest among academics in creative new ways to teach undergraduate science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to involve students in research mentoring programs, including students not majoring in these fields. Each winner receives $300,000 over four years to expand their work beyond their own institutions. In addition to Turro, professors from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Boston and Princeton universities, and the universities of Arizona and Colorado have won this year's awards, which will be presented at a ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. on June 19.

Judith Ramaley, assistant director for education and human resources at the NSF, praised this year's winners for their creative approaches and devotion to teaching. "The contributions of these six remarkable individuals set a standard and provide models when we look for examples of outstanding teaching," she said in an announcement May 8. "Not only do these faculty members help their students learn new skills and ideas but they also demonstrate the integration of research and education through their practice and inspire their students to conduct scholarship at the highest level."

In 1997 Turro organized a "Faculty-Student Information Technology Cluster" which provided resources for faculty in the sciences to develop IT tools for use in their courses. The success of this teaching reform was recognized by the National Science Foundation through a "Institutional Wide Reform of Science Education" award to Columbia with Turro as the principle investigator. The award allowed for the continued development of IT teaching tools and provided a model for Columbia, which established its own center for IT initiatives, the Center for New Media for Teaching and Learning, in 1999. The Center assists faculty in many fields in the development of interactive learning programs to enhance undergraduate and graduate teaching.

Turro's innovative teaching methods are based on his belief that excellence and scholarship in teaching and learning enables and inspires breakthroughs in research, and that every intellectual activity stands on three pillars: content, context and cognition. He found this out early in his career when he volunteered to be a teaching assistant in undergraduate courses while he was a graduate student with full support from a NSF fellowship.

He discovered that teaching undergraduates expanded his own understanding of the course content, also giving the material wider context, which proved, he said, "extremely powerful" for his own understanding of his research on organic photochemistry. In recent years Turro has studied educational research in teaching and learning and has applied the lessons of this scholarship for employing best practices of how students learn. He believes that the integration of any course content with context and cognitive methods will allow students to truly understand the material better.

"Content or "knowing what" has been done in the past, acknowledging prior knowledge properly and applying it to teaching and learning is the foundation of good scholarship," says Turro. "Context is the aspect of scholarship that produces a 'know how to connect" knowledge in which meaning and motivation is attached to the knowledge creation process. Cognition is the "know why the connections are there" aspect of knowledge creation".

Turro also has been an innovator in developing mentoring programs for undergraduate students, many of them minority students, to work directly on research with faculty. He has extended these programs to bring undergraduate visiting students from the University of Richmond, the Claremont Colleges in California and Diablo Valley Junior College in California to summer research programs on spectroscopy and photochemistry at Columbia.

Columbia's Chemistry Department is recognized as one of the top 10 in the nation with a faculty devoted to teaching. Several of its 21 professors have received teaching awards. Chemistry Professors Ronald Breslow and George Flynn both have received the Mark Van Doren Medal from Columbia College in recognition of their teaching achievements. Chemistry Professors Leonard Fine, Thomas Katz and George Flynn have won Columbia University Presidential Awards for Teaching and Professor Breslow also won the Great Teacher Award given by the Alumni Association.

Turro, a graduate of Wesleyan University who earned the Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, has taught at Columbia since 1964. He is the author of "Modern Molecular Photochemistry," the standard text in the field for nearly four decades and has published more than 700 research papers in established scientific journals. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Sixty students have obtained the Ph.D. and 170 post-doctoral students have been trained under his supervision.

Published: May 14, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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