Innovative role-playing labs earn Professor John Walters the 2002 Brasted Award

(see also the pKAL writeup for a more detailed explanation)

By Nancy J. Ashmore
May 15, 2002

NORTHFIELD, Minn. - On May 21, Professor of Chemistry John P. Walters will receive the 2002 Robert Brasted Award, presented every three years by the Minnesota American Chemical Society to an educator, nominated by his or her peers, for contributions to teaching chemistry at the college level.

The award recognizes the impact Walters has made through his "role-playing" approach to the teaching of analytical chemistry - an innovative and exciting way to teach that is being emulated by several of the nation's top research universities.

He did it by combining a technique learned as part of a church service project with lessons he learned on the job years ago at Kodak and American Can Co. research labs.

Here's how it began: Shortly after Walters and his wife, Barbara, moved to Northfield in 1982, they got involved in a ministry program at St. John's Lutheran Church that trains laypeople to become "non-judgmental companions" to individuals dealing with emotional, physical or spiritual problems. During a conference, he suddenly saw how the role-playing techniques that were enabling him and other trainees to "assume responsibility for our own education" might be applied to his analytical chemistry class. He tried it on one laboratory exercise and, putting it unscientifically: "The kids went nuts."

Over the next few years Walters expanded that single lab to 12. All of them expose students to the practice of modern analytical chemistry and give them hands-on experience using spectrophotometers, pH meters, liquid chromatographs and computer interfacing. The labs also teach students about the many hats a professional analytical chemist wears - sometimes simultaneously, sometimes as part of a team.

"I didn't invent role-playing," Walters explains, "and the labs are not directly comparable to what happens in industry because the roles rotate. But by placing students into collaborative groups, or 'companies,' rather than pitting individuals against one another, we get much closer to the reality of the work world than the exercises we performed before."

It is clear the moment you walk into the lab in Science Center 321 that something different is afoot. For one thing, the ceiling is festooned with umbrellas, hung there originally to protect sensitive electrical equipment from the leaks to which the Science Center roof was prone. Now, says Walters, they "lend a touch of color to the lab."

Also hanging overhead are four names: Laura, Bruce, Deano and Wendy. These are the names of the "companies"- and of four former students who "blew me out of the water." One of those students, interestingly enough, rejected the professor's role-playing scenarios.

"It's not for everyone," Walters says, "though it seems to engage everyone, from top students to those who are usually on the bottom. It flattens the curve, by bringing the lower students up."

Students in the companies play four different roles - chemist, hardware, software and manager - and rotate the positions regularly. The manager is responsible for guiding the team. The grade that he or she gets in a "job evaluation" with the instructor is the grade that everyone gets.

The students learn scientific principles, business-oriented ways of working and much more. In the "Down-sizing Dilemma," for instance, "Manager has to decide if a robotic method can compensate for firing yourself, while Chemist prepares the standard solutions for manual and robotic use, Software prepares a 'robot' using a data analysis spreadsheet, and Hardware runs two spectrophotometers and a robot at the same time."

John Walters has now retired, but his teaching technique is not. It's being used by on-campus colleagues - including Assistant Professor of Chemistry Paul Jackson and Associate Professor of Chemistry Mary Walczak, who currently teach the analytical chemistry course - and by chemistry educators at the University of Michigan, where role-playing is now used to teach first-year chemistry to a class of 800 students, and Purdue University (Walter's alma mater) where some 300 students learn medicinal chemistry through role-playing each year.

The Brasted Award is the fifth time Walter's innovative teaching has been recognized. Among other organizations that have recognized his work are the Manufacturing Chemists Association, the American Chemical Society Analytical Division, the Dreyfus Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation.

St. Olaf College, a national leader among liberal arts institutions, fosters the development of mind, body and spirit. It is a residential college in Northfield, Minn., and affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The college provides personalized instruction and diverse learning environments, with more than two-thirds of its students participating in international studies.

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