Background and Context


Cathy Middlecamp
Department of Chemistry
1101 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706

Omie Baldwin
University Health Services
905 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53715


University of Wisconsin-Madison

Teaching goals and philosophy

By Cathy Middlecamp
(excerpts from "The Art of Engagement," CONFChem, Fall 2003)


What engages students? And what engages us in engaging them? Both of these questions need our attention as we consider how and why we should teach chemistry to non-science majors. The stakes are high. If students do not engage, they are unlikely to learn. And if we do not engage, we are unlikely to engage our students. Furthermore if we do not engage, we miss out on opportunities to learn ourselves. Thus, the engagement of all involved in the teaching and learning processes would seem to be a worthy goal.

Worthy or not, engagement is no simple process. It involves a commitment of self and energy. And even with such a commitment, engagement may remain an elusive goal. These observations serve as the rationale for the assertion made in the title, namely, that engagement is an art. Engaging one's students is not simply a matter of following a set of rules and/or persisting. Rather, like any art, engagement requires creativity and must be developed and practiced over time.

The Courage to Engage

Frankly, I never expected to be so engaged in teaching non-science majors. In planning a career path, this possibility never crossed my mind. But once my students engaged me, I was hooked and in this, there is a certain justice. In my earlier attempts at finding a chemical "hook" that would engage my students, I found myself on the hook as well.

Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, writes: "We did not merely find a subject to teach - the subject also found us" (p. 25). I agree. Real-world topics such as nuclear radiation, plastics and recycling, and smog found me. With these and other issues that deeply affect all of us on this planet, I became engaged. In turn, I want to engage my students in their complexities. As a friendly corollary to Parker Palmer's statement, I also would want to assert that we do not merely find students to teach, the students also find us. And once they do, a certain amount of courage is required on our part.

Why courage? For at least three reasons. First, to engage students you have to know and connect with your students. This is not for the faint of heart, in the sense that you will be drawn into their worlds in ways that are perhaps unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Second, once you engage students, they will engage you as well. This has a cost in time and energy, and you will discover which boundaries you can cross, which personal frontiers you can negotiate, and which, for a variety of reasons, you simply cannot. Thirdly, and to me perhaps the most exciting realization, is that engagement with what you teach carries an intellectual challenge. Let me explain by offering an analogy. In teaching a first-year course to non-majors, I feel much more like I am conducting one at the graduate level. My course carries the same challenge as a graduate course in keeping current. For example, with a topic like ozone depletion, I add or subtract from my notes each time NASA makes announcement about this year's ozone hole, whenever nations meet to further amend the Montreal Protocol, when Freon smuggling reaches a new high, when an industrial refrigerant accident tragically kills works by ammonia inhalation, and/or when new chemical information about the behavior chlorine in the upper atmosphere is released. Whew! I sometimes long for the days when I could simply pull out the same old buffer titration problems off the shelf year after year. It takes courage to commit to a course that will in turn commit you to a serious degree of study.

Practicing the art of engagement

I return to an assertion made in the title: Engagement is an art worthy of a lifetime of reflection and study. As such, it comes neither easily nor cheaply, but rather with a personal commitment and a willingness to practice. This art involves making good choices in regards to the content that is taught (and not taught), in regards to one's personal involvement in the teaching process, and in recognizing the subtleties and challenges of the larger learning context for both our students and for ourselves.

Think for a minute about practicing any art: a musical art, a martial art, or a medical art. The "practice" needed for any of these involves a significant commitment of self. Equally importantly, these arts require a willingness to enter into the practice as a beginner. Acknowledging one's status as a beginner can offer tremendous freedom. Beginners are free to be just that, allowing themselves to at times act clumsily or ineptly. Beginners also are free to seek out experts. Fortunate is the beginner willing to practice in the company of one who shows mastery of the art!

To the extent that we expect to quickly and easily engage our students, we deny the very art form of engagement. We also lose the freedoms that can and must be granted to beginners. Admittedly some are born with incredible amounts of raw talent, perhaps "born" as painters, gymnasts or composers. Personally, I believe that the art of engagement can be won over time and through practice. With one action, we may overengage at too great a personal cost. With another, we under-engage or inappropriately engage, thus disconnecting from our students. Through practice, we find a path of engagement that works both for us, for our students and for the world that connects us.

Where is the course taught?

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a public land grant institution. It is the largest campus in the University of Wisconsin System that includes 13 universities ("comprehensives") and 13 two year schools, and an extension.

The UW-Madison web page provides a link to these quick facts:

  • Location: Madison, Wisconsin
  • Founded: 1848 (First class: February 1849)
  • Campus: 933 acres (main campus)
  • Enrollment: 41,588
  • Budget: $1,696,085,152
The student profile (Fall 2003) is listed as:

Men 19,876 47.8%
Women 21,712 52.2%

Ethnic minority students 4,108 9.9%
African American 994 2.3%
Asian American 1,838 4.4%
Native American 230 0.6%
Hispanic 1,046 2.5%

From Wisconsin 25,974 62.5%
From other U.S. States 12,077 29.0%
International students 3,571 8.6%
U.S. states represented 50
Countries represented 120

Average composite ACT (freshman class) 27.5
Average SAT 1,260
Average high school class percentile rank 88.7

At the UW-Madison, approximately 2500 students take first year ("general") chemistry each fall.

What is the course's role in the undergraduate curriculum?

This course fulfils a general education requirement for ethnic diversity in the U.S. However, not all students take it for this reason. As you can see by the student comments in the assessment section, some non-science majors took it for other reasons (such as a means to continue their study of how science relates to societal issues).

How does the Course Advance or Engage Institution-Wide Initiatives?

In part, this question is answered in the previous section. This course contributes to the UW general education program in that it meets the Ethnic Studies Requirement. This requirement was instituted back in the 1980s when faculty and administrators nationwide were responding to the issues of race/ethnicity that were facing them and their students.

More recently, our institution has committed to Plan 2008, "a broad and aggressive plan for what we need to do to make institutional improvements necessary to achieve greater diversity on campus." One of the goals of Plan 2008 is to:

"Foster institutional environments and course development that enhance learning and a respect for racial and ethnic diversity."

Our course is in service of this goal. As we acknowledge in the last section of this document, funding for Omie Baldwin's release time was granted through Plan 2008.

The full text of Plan 2008 is available at: