Owen Cherry / The Mainstream

Chemistry professor discusses common obstacles and success strategies for chemistry students

Joseph Villa, who has a doctorate in analytic/environmental chemistry, has been a chemistry professor at Umpqua Community College since 2014. Villa spent 13 years studying chemistry. Here he shares some of his educational story with insights on how to succeed as a chemistry student.

What drew you to study chemistry?

Up until the 10th grade I was convinced I was going to be a child psychiatrist. That was what I thought I wanted to do. But in 10th grade I took a biology course with a really great teacher, and I realized “wow this is really fun.” My teacher was able to show the relationship of science to so many different things. A big thing at that time was the new disease of HIV, and it was just being discovered and thus was a big topic of conversation in biology, and this really opened up to me the importance of science in our lives. Then in 11th grade I took a chemistry course and that really helped me decide that I wanted to study something science related. Then my advisor recommended I study environmental toxicology as an undergraduate because that major involved biology, chemistry and physics all in one.

In the course of your education what jobs have you held?

Right after college with my bachelor’s degree I got a job at an environmental lab. That was a small lab in the Bay area where we would do water soil and air analysis, environmental impact analysis, and water quality analysis. Eventually, I advanced as far as I could there without a master’s degree. Right out of college, I had wanted to go to graduate school but did not get accepted. But after working for a few years, I applied and got accepted into a master’s program in chemistry. At that point I decided to at least get a master’s degree in chemistry, and then a doctorate degree if possible.

Chemistry students often wonder when the material they are studying will be relevant to their lives. Can you explain some of the benefits for students to study chemistry?

For me it was understanding the world around me. Everything we come into contact with on a daily basis is matter, and chemistry is the study of matter, which means chemistry is the study of everything around us. So many things, such as pharmaceuticals, clothing, food and fuel sources, involve chemistry at some level. Another benefit I think to studying chemistry is learning problem solving skills. In chemistry, you have to be creative to get from point A to point B. Often the solution is not a few simple steps but requires creativity, and usually there are multiple different approaches that work. Learning how to work through these sorts of problems builds thinking and problem solving skills that go far beyond just chemistry and can change how students look at things and approach problems.

What are some of the things students can do to prepare to succeed in your chemistry classes and in chemistry in general?

It is important for students to understand that chemistry is not something you can study casually. In chemistry, each idea builds on those before it. If students have a shaky foundation on basic ideas, as things become more complex students will struggle to keep up. Learning chemistry requires a full commitment. To succeed, you have to do the readings, complete the practice problem, and devote the time to studying. One of the biggest things that successful students do is ask questions. If you don’t understand something, ask! If you don’t want to raise your hand, you can send me an email or tweet, but ask that question. Even questions that aren’t specifically about the course material are good. If you’re trying to relate the course material with something else you are learning, go ahead and ask about that. Asking questions indicates that a student is engaged with the course and thinking about the concepts being taught. I also put up lots of resources on Canvas that may help students see an idea or problem differently. About half of my students spend time utilizing these resources, and this can really give them an advantage. 

What is the ideal student for your chemistry classes?

My favorite type of student is the engaged student. These students ask questions. They don’t have to be a chemistry major, but what I really value is an inquisitive attitude. One thing I mention often is that the average four year old asks 400 questions a day, while the average adult asks six questions a day. But I think it is important in chemistry and more generally to keep asking questions. Why is that happening? What is going on with this process? I really value students that have an interest in the course topics that goes beyond simply passing an exam. It’s important to mention that not every student has to want to study chemistry in order to be engaged. I have students that are not chemistry majors and don’t intend to study chemistry beyond my courses but remain engaged with the class and ask insightful questions.

What are some things that you think limit students’ success in your classes?

Apathetic students do not succeed. My students are not in high school anymore. They are here because they want to be. This means that they need to take responsibility for their education. Students sometimes complain that a poor teacher is the reason they are failing a course, but students can do a lot of things to teach themselves. They can come ask me questions, they can study with classmates or use the tutors and study groups that are available. But the bottom line is students have to take responsibility and ask themselves if they really want to be successful with their education. I think it is helpful for students to ask themselves why they are taking chemistry, and then relate chemistry to their goal. For example, students heading into medicine or forestry will need to understand the basics of chemistry in order to be successful in those fields. This can help motivate students to take ownership of their chemistry education. This can make chemistry easier to study and more interesting.

What are some of the things you value most from your own education?

One thing I really value from my graduate work was the opportunities I had to work with so many other people in other departments. I worked with people in the chemistry department, chemical engineering department, pharmacologists, biochemists, organic chemists and geologists while working on my dissertation. Being able to interact with all these people showed me how my research is relevant to so many diverse fields of study. It broadened my perspective and helped me think about my research in a new light.

What are some things you regret about your educational experience?

My first two years of college I really did not take advantage of talking to professors. Going to a larger school often meant large class sizes and fewer opportunities to talk with professors. That could be intimidating, and thus I didn’t do the questioning and asking that I should have in those early courses. I think if I had talked more with my instructors I would have had more success in those years. As I progressed to higher-level courses, I began to interact more with my instructors and even got to know them just as a person and not just an instructor. I found out that one of my instructors had been a member of the Japanese Olympic ski jumping team!

What is one of the most profound or fascinating ideas from your field?

One of the most profound things about chemistry is that it is the foundation for so many other fields of science. Understanding chemistry is essential to understanding science as a whole.

What is one of your goals as a chemistry instructor? I hope to give students the same fascination of science that my high school instructors gave to me. If I can influence even one student to love science, that would be really neat.

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