Chemical Education and the Joy of Learning

A traditional bench chemist by training, Donald Wink, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Chemistry and director of graduate studies at the Learning Sciences Research Institute, has devoted much of his career to improving chemical education. “As a synthetic inorganic research chemist my goals included making new things that allow us to understand nature better, control nature better, or both,” Wink said. “At the same time, there was this question of, how do we bring others into this enterprise? Even in graduate school I was looking for opportunities in which the teaching of chemistry would be a significant part of the work I would be doing.”

Donald Wink

Donald Wink. Photo by Micki Leventhal

Incorporating both the theoretical and practical, chemical education aims to help both teachers and students of chemistry do their jobs better—to teach more effectively and learn more deeply. “The research I have done has been associated with what goes on in learning environments where chemistry is the discipline,” explained Wink. “Some of it is fundamental: what are students thinking when they encounter a certain phenomenon? Some of it is applied: how can we train teachers better, so that learning outcomes rise?”

Wink joined the chemistry faculty in 1992. “UIC was looking to establish a program in chemical education that would build on the Teaching Integrated Mathematics and Sciences Project of physicist Howard Goldberg and mathematician Phillip Wagreich (1941-2013) at the university’s Institute for Math and Science Education,” said Wink. “My appointment brought chemistry into the equation.”

By taking an integrated view of mathematics and the sciences, Wink and his colleagues were able to demonstrate interdisciplinary relationships and develop courses that would help students’ later success. “For example, we have Preparatory Chemistry 101, a course that targets students who need additional work prior to taking General College Chemistry 112—which is a course you will need if you’re a nursing student, an engineer, a biology major or pre-med,” he said.

In his ongoing efforts to improve fundamental chemical education, Wink authored two books: The Practice of Chemistry (with Sharon Fetzer Gislason and Sheila McNicholas) and the laboratory manual Working with Chemistry (with Sharon Fetzer Gislason and Julie Ellefson Kuehn).

He is developing a course to provide undergraduate students with inquiry learning methods and engagement in learning around a contemporary topic. “Students will carry out project work of their own choosing around some phenomenon associated with the action of external chemical agents—such as food supplements or pharmaceuticals—on people,” Wink explained. “They will formulate their own example of ‘an indeterminate situation’ into one that they can understand and share with others.”

Wink’s efforts at UIC have led to an increase in laboratory research opportunities for first-and second-year undergraduate chemistry students. Over the past two decades, he has led or collaborated on projects to enhance both undergraduate and K-12 science education.

He has long collaborated with the College of Education, partnering with Professor Maria Varelas and many others to develop natural science courses for pre-elementary education majors. He most recently served as the Principal Investigator for the National Science Foundation-funded Chicago Transformation Teacher Institutes in which UIC partners with DePaul, Northwestern and Loyola Universities, and the Illinois Institute of Technology to increase curricular and teaching skills among Chicago Public High School math and science teachers.

Wink’s practice of improving chemical education is grounded in the deep study of educational theory. “The only things we truly learn are things that are relevant. If we pick up things that are a series of unconnected facts we actually haven’t learned. John Dewey’s whole educational method is very much based on this notion, and he privileged scientific inquiry as a way of thinking that was particularly effective and a practice that would benefit every human mind,” he said.

“What does it mean to know science and what do you need to know in order to know science?” Wink asked. He explained that science might be viewed as a series of facts learned by rote but not understood. A student of science can, however, also move to the next level, developing an ability to describe phenomena and gaining a basic understanding of how scientists work.

Ultimately, Wink believes that the ideas of science are rooted in methods of inquiry and practice and that you have a more complete understanding of science if you do the science, further noting that “there is not a scientific method, there are scientific methods. People have this idea that science is all fixed knowledge and that is absolutely not true. Science’s job is not to resolve ambiguity, but to find out what is going on.”

Wink, who was named a University Scholar earlier this year, believes there is pleasure in this journey. “The human mind is a delightful thing and I share Dewey’s idea that you need to give people an idea of what their mind is good for. Children are happy because their minds are relatively unfettered. At some point practical considerations intervene and you have to pay attention to things like how to earn a living and pay your bills, but we cut students off from the joy of learning far too early.”