Q&A: Neil Garg, Professor of Organic Chemistry, UCLA

Q&A: Neil Garg, Professor of Organic Chemistry, UCLA

Neil Garg is an award-winning professor of organic chemistry at UCLA, where his teaching approach has won him rave reviews from the most demanding of critics: his students.

His first year course Chemistry 14D: Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals, is so popular that students will spend the entire lecture standing just to attend. A passionate advocate for equality in learning, Garg and a colleague developed an online learning portal called BACON to help teach students everywhere about the beauty of organic chemistry. He’s also famous for asking his students to create chemistry-themed music videos, which are marked on the quality of the science therein.

Neil Garg will be leading a panel at the American Chemical Society National Meeting in San Francisco in association with Top Hat. Dr. Donna McGregor, Dr. James Ross and Michelle Newsome will be talking about how to use active learning techniques to encourage classroom attention.

We talked to Professor Garg about innovations in teaching, how best to engage millennials and when technology is appropriate and when it is distracting.

Your undergraduate class is oversubscribed. With such a large class size, how do you ensure that you’re engaging with all students and that people attending don’t feel like they’re just a number?

The typical Chem 14D class has anywhere from 350 to 385 students. To help keep students engaged, I use a blend of old school and newer technologies. For example, most of my lecture material is still conveyed using the chalkboard. Especially for organic chemistry, a ‘chalk-talk’ provides a good pace and helps to encourage students to draw out structures and mechanisms. I also make a significant effort to learn the names of students throughout the course, which helps tremendously.

Students frequently praise your teaching style. What do you think you do that elicits such a strong positive reaction, and what tips can you offer to other professors hoping to create a more active learning environment?

There’s no “one size fits all” model for teaching, so most importantly, professors need to find a style that works best for them and their students. I like to focus on four main principles when teaching:

  1. Show students the relevance of the material;
  2. Give students opportunities to be creative and enjoy learning;
  3. Make the course challenging;
  4. Provide students with all the support you can.

We live in an age of extreme distraction. With constant notifications and status updates, it’s a wonder anyone can stay focused. How would you recommend people combat this?

At least for organic chemistry lectures, I think the ‘chalk-talk’ style works well to keep students engaged. I often advise students to find quiet places to study and to literally shut off their phones when they study. If they balance their time well and can resist the distractions, they can get their studying out of the way, and then enjoy their social time afterwards.

You developed BACON, an online chemistry learning portal. Initially open to only UCLA students, you successfully crowdfunded last year to grant access to other students across the world. What’s your most important tip for authors creating interactive texts and online courses aimed at large audiences?

Engage students in the creative process and welcome their feedback throughout. These types of initiatives are 100 percent for students, so their feedback and involvement is vital.

Top Hat is at Booth 628 at the American Chemical Society National Meeting. Find out more here.

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