Award-winning teachers find the unexpected
By Steve Koppes
Photo by Beth Rooney
I really appreciate my students because they recommended me to get the prize.”
When Sangyun Lee began teaching a laboratory section of “Introductory General Chemistry” last Autumn Quarter, he practiced his presentations before standing in front of his students.
A native South Korean, he worried that his English proficiency might hinder his ability to teach. Preparation for his first lessons included writing and rehearsing a script of his presentation before class. He was therefore both amazed and surprised to learn that he is a recipient of a 2011 Wayne C. Booth Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
“I really appreciate my students because they recommended me to get the prize,” says Lee, a first-year doctoral student in chemistry.
Lee quit scripting his presentations as his confidence grew, but he remains vigilant about his language skills. “I need to improve my English much more,” he adds.
Lee began studying English in middle school. Later, he worked on a U.S. military base in South Korea while serving his mandatory two-year tour of duty as a soldier, which further enabled him to practice English and learn about U.S. culture. Nevertheless, he had traveled to the United States only once before enrolling at UChicago, to visit campus and then relatives in California.
“The University of Chicago is a great place to study theoretical or computational chemistry,” says Lee, who completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Seoul National University before coming to Chicago last year. Now he is a member of Prof. Gregory Voth’s research group, which performs computer simulations of molecular dynamics.
Lee taught the laboratory section of “General Chemistry,” taught by Aaron Dinner, associate professor in chemistry, during the Autumn Quarter; “Thermodynamics for Advanced Undergraduates,” during the Winter Quarter, taught by Prof. Norbert Scherer; and now he leads problem-solving sessions for “General Chemistry,” taught by Prof. Luping Yu, in which Lee helps students solve homework problems and prepare for examinations.
“The time is limited, so every undergrad course is very intensive,” Lee says. The tight schedule has led him to focus his attention on the most difficult parts of the courses. Lee draws from his own undergraduate experience of grappling with the homework problems each time his students receive a new assignment.
“I try to give them one or two sentences as their hint or tips to solve their homework much more easily,” Lee says. The hints are just enough to help reduce the difficulty of the assignment, but not so much that they could avoid thinking deeply about the problem.
Lee has found that explaining chemistry concepts to undergraduates has helped make these concepts more concrete in his own mind as a doctoral student. “I love teaching,” he says.