CABNR ‘Teacher of the Year’ keeps class lively

Gary Blomquist's dentist once told him there are two types of people in the world - people who took biochemistry and hated it and those who have never taken it.

But Blomquist, the department chair for the CABNR Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, disagrees. Blomquist has watched his colleague Dr. Jeff Harper teach Introductory Biochemistry, and he knows Harper's students come away excited about what they are learning. That's why Harper recently won the CABNR "Teacher of the Year" award.

"I can attest to the depth of his knowledge and easy rapport with the students," Blomquist said. "My dentist may not agree, but thanks to Dr. Harper's excellent teaching, there is now a third group - those who have taken biochemistry and love it."

Harper believes everyone is a born scientist.

"An infant is naturally curious, and discovers the world by experimenting with their surroundings," Harper said. "Learning comes from discovery."

Gary BloomquestWhile his BCH400 class - Introductory Biochemistry - has grown steadily over the years from 75 students in 2009 to 150 students in 2013, Harper manages to keep the class lively through various teaching techniques. One method is to connect the students' reading and his lectures to real-world issues.

"I try to provide a learning environment where textbook knowledge is connected to issues like medicine or biotechnology," Harper says. Harper keeps his classroom lively by including video clips about biochemistry that are both entertaining and visual. He finds videos from such places as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and TED lectures, and he also uses video lectures to bring students insight to careers in medicine, industry and academics.

He gives extra credit to student groups who propose the best genetic engineering idea, and students are also asked to research "fun facts" that are then presented to the class. At least one question on every test is based on a student-contributed fun fact.

The final exam for Introductory Biochemistry is a standardized test from the American Chemical Society. Students who score in the top 10 percent nationally can earn an ‘A', even if their previous scores were not at an ‘A' level.

Harper feels his greatest contribution to his students' learning comes outside the classroom - in his lab, where he always has some kind of experiments going and students are encouraged to be independent investigators. His questions in thesis committee meetings seek to engage students in scientific discussion rather to simply test their knowledge.

"I try to interact with students and post-docs as professionals," he says.