California Professor Of The Year Is From USD
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. People learn by doing. That truism has been around for years, but it's not always followed in institutions of higher learning. Students can spend years in classes listening, reading and learning theories without getting much hands on experience. That's not the case for the students of Professor Mitchell Malachowski. And that's probably one of the reasons that this University of San Diego organic Chemistry professor has been named the California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Professor Malachowski is my guest and Mitch welcome and congratulations! MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Thank you so much, Maureen. I am thrilled and grateful to be here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, your focus is not to turn all of your students into organic chemists, you have a larger mission in mind to help them find out a little bit more about themselves, tell us more about that. MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Well, I think what my students they come to USD with particular interest and a particular focus and there are times I want to challenge that and help them to think for deeply about what it is they want to do and why. So I think a lot of my focus with them then becomes very personal. I think the more you can personalize what they do and the more you personalize who they want to be, um, the stronger the relationship is they have with themselves I think. That's the start of it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you think is lacking in the typical college experience is it the pressure to pick a major and make career plans and stay with that? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Well, that's where it starts. (LAUGHTER) I have to say I am horrified at times when my students come and they already know what they want to do with their life. They have already created a future for themselves and they have already decided what it will look like and where they will go after they are undergraduates, and I think wow, I certainly was not that person when I was in college. I was confused. I was lost. I didn't know what I wanted to do. You know, at that time I was not that worried about it. There is so much pressure on students now. The first question they are asked is whoa, what is your major? The second question is, what do you want to do with that? The third one is, what is your career going to be? And I think wow, that's way before they should be make is those types of choices. They have a long ways to go. I think we all do, and I think we still all try and figure out who we want to be and how do we want to do that. So to think when you are 17 or 18 you have that figured out it is generally mistaken. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, that's definitely space for experimentation and to find out and try different things has been overshadowed by the expense of going to a University, hasn't it? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Yes, one of the things when students come to USD we have lots of conversations with their families. You can see the pressure they feel and it is an expensive proposition. I think we do need to comfort them and give them some sense that we are going to help them get to where they probably should go. We just don't know where that is on day one. So my job is to help them. I think of them as explorers, they need to explore. They need to explore themselves and explore the material and the subject and they really should think of themselves as someone who is trying to figure things out and not get to the career. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And in line with that, there is a movement now that you are very much involved in promoting more undergraduate research in higher education. How does that change the class and the classroom experience for students? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Undergraduate research is a wonderful way for people to get a sense of what they really care about and are good at. I can use my own story, maybe that's why I am so invested in undergraduate research. I was a student. As I said, I was confused and unsure of myself. I was probably described by my professors as an underachiever, I'm not that proud of that, that's where I was. They thought I had some gifts and talents, but I was not using them at the level they challenged me to do that. One of them said: "You know what, you are going to work in my lab. You are going to come into my lab." I was not even a Chemistry major, and I started working in his lab and it was a transformative experience for me. I saw that I could read books to being a person who was a practitioner. I think that was really a life changing activity for me. I am a convert I guess then, we are the ones who speak most forcibly about these experiences. I think the other part that really stayed with me was the power that he had over me in my life. I really realized that a faculty member really can influence people and in very personal ways. That was probably the beginning of me thinking that's probably something I want to do. That's something that I might be good at maybe, maybe not. I really wanted to do it at that point. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, how does your class in organic Chemistry actually work for your students? Are they given assignments? Do they make up their own assignments? What is and how much time do they actually spend trying to solve these problems in the lab? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: It is a tricky little thing for all of us to all faculty there is a body of information that people need to know. So you need to help them understand the material. Really what I spend my time with when I am with my students is helping to make connections. It is all about the connections. So, they work problem after problem after problem and they connect one piece of information to another piece of information and that's the way to learn the information. It is a funny thing to teach organic Chemistry, I will be out somewhere and somebody will say to me: "Oh, what do you do for a living?" And I will say: "I am a college professor" because they think that is moderately interesting. They will say: "Whoa, what do you teach?" And I will say: "Organic Chemistry." And they will go oh, my God. They will look for (LAUGHTER) for the next group of people to speak with, especially if they are doctors or dentists or folks who had to take organic Chemistry. The response is a result of an approach that I try to fight against which is that they memorize the material, they learn the facts and the details and they regurgitated them and then moved on. That's just not what learning is all about. We know that. So my students do problem after problem and we just make connection after connection after connection. I think if I do something well it is helping them to see those intellectual connections and make connections with them. I think that's what my students will say repeatedly. They are very appreciative of the connections that they make with their classmates and with me and then ultimately with the material. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you ever in this whole process of making those connections and having this personal relationship with your students, do you ever find that someone who thinks that their life trajectory involves organic Chemistry is really not where they should be. In other words, they are not cut out for it. They should be doing something else? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Yeah, I always ask my students you know it is Saturday night and imagine all of your friends going out and you have to do studying, what is it that you should study? Would it be Chemistry? And if they say yes, maybe they are on the right path. If they say no, I would rather read a history book, we are on to something. I am for all of my students finding what their passion is. So much of it is about passion. So um, when I see them struggling or I see them uninterested I really do try and give them options and other things to think about. A lot of students who are in Chemistry or Biology and they want to go medical school or dental school or vet school or so on. You really do need to probe about why you want to do do you really like that? Or is it simply a career out there that sounds like something you want to do? Or the parents out who and the parents simply want them to do it. It is a painful lesson for all of the family, but I think they are better served to find their passions. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Mitch what does winning the Carnegie Foundation Award do for your career and for USD? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: You know I feel a little bit like a fraud to tell you the truth. Not a fraud, but there was so many wonderful faculty members at USD and in California, it is humbling and it is affirming that what you are doing has had an impact. There are people that wrote letters and said things that um, you know, they affirm the approach I have and the methods I have used with my students. There are a lot of faculty that do wonderful things and so what separated me from all of the other wonderful people, I really don't know in the minds of the Carnegie folks. I think the conversation that I have had about undergraduate research nationally is probably a big part of that. The message that I give is faculty research is really important, but it should have a positive impact on students and student learning. So we should involve our students in our research. The research is not on one side and the teaching on the other side, it is altogether. That's really the message. I think it is an important message that people should get. It is very affirming that I have had an impact on other people. The best part is I want my students to then take that and they have an impact on the next generation. That's what happened to me. That's what I want to see them move with. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Somebody has to win, right? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Somebody has to win. (LAUGHTER) I say I feel like a fraud, but I am not giving it back. I am happy to take it and run with it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know in the approach that you take, both in the lab and in asking these questions, having your students sort of reevaluate some of the notions they have had about their life and career for a while. What do you consider a successful experience for one of your students? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: One, we challenge our students so success matters. It is not simply exploration, it is exploration and a challenge. So I think that reaching the person's goals is really part of it and maximizing their talent level. I think without the help I got in college, I would never have gotten anywhere close to getting near my talent level. And so to me, a success is somebody who pushes him or herself and real challenges him or herself and at the end reflects back and learns from those experiences, that's success. Whether they become chemists or not is not relevant to the answer. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You are in the process of writing a book about undergraduate research, is that right? MITCH MALACHOWSKI: And again, it speaks to the many different ways that you can engage students in research activities and people think that research is something that maybe you do MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When you are an organic chemist. MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Yeah or you are doing it by yourself somewhere in your office and you are sitting there with a manuscript and a light on writing and writing and writing. The question is how do you get your students involved in that process and help them see what it is all about and whether it is something for them. Not because they need to become college professors, but they need to really challenge themselves and be more insightful about who they are. So, I think the book will speak to those types of issues and how we make that happen and the tradeoffs we have to make to make that actually happen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for coming in and speaking was and congratulations. MITCH MALACHOWSKI: Thank you. Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with USD Professor Mitchell Malachowski who was recently named California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. Be sure to watch KPBS Evening Edition at five and again at 6:30 tonight on KPBS television and join us again tomorrow for discussions on Midday Edition right here on KPBS FM. I am Maureen Cavanaugh, thank you for listening.
People learn by doing. That truism has been around for years, but it's not always followed in institutions of higher learning. Students can spend years in classes listening, reading and learning theories without getting much hands-on experience.
That's not the case for the students of professor Mitchell Malachowski. And that's probably one of the reasons that this University of San Diego organic chemistry professor has been named the California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.