When Neil Garg asked his audience if they heard organic chemistry was the best class they would take, the audience laughed in response.
“It’s a class typically associated with memorization,” Garg said. “Some people say it’s impossible, it’s a weeder class and it will crush your dreams.”
At a free public lecture at the California NanoSystems Institute auditorium Friday, Garg, a chemistry and biochemistry professor, said he encourages student engagement and collaboration to make his organic chemistry class more interesting.
Garg is a finalist for this year’s Robert Foster Cherry Award, which honors professors who have a positive and lasting effect on students. The lecture is part of the award process for finalists.
In his lecture, Garg said he is well-known for teaching Chemistry 14D: “Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals,” a popular course at UCLA. On Bruinwalk, a website where users can rate UCLA professors and classes, the course he teaches is rated a 4.6 out of five.
Garg said he tries to help students enjoy organic chemistry, often seen as dry and difficult, by engaging with students and showing them its practical applications. To demonstrate the real-life applications of organic chemistry, Garg showed students photos of DNA molecules, thin-screen televisions and blue jeans.
“All the clothing you’re wearing (involved organic chemistry), not only is the fabric organic, but the dye that gives them the colors is as well,” Garg said.
Garg said he removed grading curves in his class because he thinks curves create competition and make students feel uncertain about their grades.
“It lets people relax a little bit, and it fosters collaboration, which is critical when preparing students for the future,” he said.
Garg said he uses discussion sections, undergraduate learning assistants and in-class demonstrations to foster peer learning and problem solving rather than memorization and reviews.
He added his extra credit assignment, where students create music videos on organic chemistry, encourages students to have fun and be creative with the subject.
[Related Link: Students mix chemistry and music.]
“It’s getting people excited enough to go off and start solving these tough problems,” Garg said.
Kendall Houk, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, jokingly said he once offered a Lamborghini to Garg in order to keep him part of the chemistry and biochemistry department faculty.
“We’ve had to fight top schools to keep him,” he said. “It’s like in baseball, when you have the star pitcher that every team wants and will do anything to get.”
Students who attended the lecture said they were impressed that Garg was able to make a difficult subject fun in the classroom.
Emily Siegler, a fourth-year biochemistry student who has taken Garg’s class, said she thinks Garg is a brilliant professor and a good faculty mentor.
Jennifer Shintaku, a third-year neuroscience student, said she heard Garg was a fun professor who was able to make a difficult course entertaining.
“I had already taken organic chemistry before I transferred to UCLA,” she said. “ It was one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken, and I was curious to see how he made the subject fun and creative.”
Each finalist for the Cherry Award will receive $15,000, and their department $10,000. After delivering a lecture in their home university, each finalist will provide a series of lectures at Baylor University, where the award’s recipients are determined. The final recipient of the Cherry Award will be announced in spring 2018.