“Authentic education…creates lifelong relationships”

Brian Coppola, Chemistry (large photo)

Dr. Brian Coppola is a Professor of Chemistry and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor honored for his excellence in teaching. While his primary academic field is organic chemistry, Coppola has also published widely on educational philosophy, practice, and assessment, and has won many university, state, and national awards for his work in science education. As both a teacher and a curriculum designer, Coppola invites students to write in wide range of media to both master chemistry concepts and learn “lifelong…lessons that extend far beyond the subject matter.”

Coppola’s philosophy of education has been shaped by both the studio format of his undergraduate visual arts courses and the Chinese “school-sibling” relationships that he has witnessed in his time as the Associate Director for the University of Michigan-Peking University Joint Institute in Beijing. According to Coppola, “authentic education at its heart creates lifelong relationships between people.”

Coppola considers teaching organic chemistry to be a “narrative,” a “process,” and a kind of performance. “I don’t consider performance to be a four-letter word,” he says. “I think…all of the performance arts have as their basis teaching, and I include writing in that.” Coppola also “believe[s} in the participatory, interactive classroom,” musing that “to say that there’s a sense of a revival meeting associated with class, sometimes, might not be an understatement.”

Educational research on “explanatory knowledge” and “reciprocal teaching” has also been highly influential to Coppola’s pedagogical approach. This research suggests that students learn material most thoroughly when they have to explain difficult concepts to one another. Coppola asks students to work collaboratively to compose in a variety of media to teach organic chemistry concepts and problem solving to each other. First-year students in his courses create podcasts, and those enrolled in honors sections design websites and assemble their own coursepacks as ways of grappling with course content and making sense of academic articles. “Whatever the mode of expression happens to be has explanatory knowledge associated with it,” says Coppola. “And if you’re going to have to sit down and make an explanation in words and sentences, then you have to think of those experiences.”

This kind of writing to learn is not just for introductory courses, however. Coppola helped design the Chemistry Department’s Upper-Level Writing Requirement (ULWR) course, which focuses on translating Chemistry concepts for a variety of audiences in a range of genres: “We really try to get them to think about the fact that they’re going to be in a research group with peers, in a research group with advisors. They may be in a company where there’s all kinds of different audiences they need to writing to.” In this course, instructors might “have them go to seminars and summarize the seminars as though they were making a recommendation for the boss. [Then] take that same seminar and think of it as a technical brief for the nontechnical staff.” ULWR students write “summary paragraphs” of their lab research and case studies about research ethics at the University of Michigan. In his graduate courses, Coppola also assigns students to write Wikipedia articles on organic chemistry topics.

In Coppola’s view, asking students in the sciences to engage with chemistry through all of these media and modes serves one major overarching pedagogical purpose: “The only reason for doing all this to me is that I want them to be able to develop one skill…When they open up something that purports to be information in chemistry, there’s only one question…that I think actually drives all instructors in all subject areas, and that question is: Do I believe this? Does the evidence warrant the claim? That’s all we do. That’s the fundamental question of argumentation. Does the evidence warrant the claim?”