USC Teaching Award Recipients Shine in Storytelling

By Mitchell Zimmer

This year's recipients of the USC Teaching Award in Science both value storytelling as a way of adding another dimension to teaching the material.

Jan Minac


Dr. Jan Minac

Dr. Jan Minac of the Mathematics Department teaches his subjects with enthusiasm and creativity. At times he has dressed up as Sherlock Holmes or Hamlet to bring mathematics to life. He has used aquarium nets to illustrate how certain algebraic terms can capture numbers while accidental numbers escape. "It is not often used," he says, but if "you can put mathematics inside a story then it becomes very lovely." Minac adds that "you can make things so that they become alive suddenly so people can think about them in a more meaningful way. This was the idea for the theatre ... and students like it. Of course you can't do theatre all of the time."

Sometimes Minac uses another tactic when teaching advanced algebra, he says that often students, "learn of these things mechanically." Too often the students are given a dry interpretationMinac as Sherlock Holmes of facts "they don't go through the history, and the history is fascinating," says Minac. He uses this background to enrich his classes and he shows how mathematical ideas develop in the context of history through stories. "They realize how the concept developed and how it helped the thinking at the time. If you describe it in a context on how the ideas develop, the understanding is much deeper."

Minac also sees teaching as a scouting opportunity. "Finding and encouraging real talent is comparable to finding a mine full of gold. It is an extremely exciting and rewarding moment where all of the previous effort, enthusiasm and hopes bring the fruit."

"One of my greatest joys is to discover a new talent in students who did not even realize that they are actually mathematically gifted. It sometime happens. What a joy it is to discover such talent. On the other hand, very sophisticated mathematics can be appreciated, learned and mastered by students who have other major interests and talents." Minac then adds, "One should adapt to each student individually according their background and interest. It is of course time consuming and challenging but it is truly rewarding! Our students never cease to amaze me with their creativity, open minds and talent." Having been chosen as a recipient of a USC Excellence in Teaching Award the feeling must be mutual for the students "Grateful to the students, each year I'm surprised how amazing the students are and they are so responsive," says Minac. "Without these students, nothing can be done."

Robert Hudson

 Dr. Robert Hudson

Dr. Robert Hudson of the Chemistry Department shares his feeling of gratitude for his award. "I was very happy and honored to be elected by the students" he says. "It's a particularly important award in that the students choose the people for recognition. I'm grateful to my students, they've inspired me to become a more effective teacher, so it is a give and take situation. I give to them and I take from them the inspiration to do better."

Hudson says that the award was "actually a bit of a surprise to me. The course that had nominated me was a third year medicinal chemistry course." Even though it is not part of the chemistry program, this course is open to people who have had a general second year and have taken organic chemistry. Unlike other chemistry classes where there are demonstrations of chemical processes which dramatic results. "I don't do the ‘flash, bang' show in that course that I do in the second year course." The third year course Hudson says that there is "not much opportunity to get stuff blown up. I try to tell interesting stories in the history in the development of drugs that I guess captures their imagination and also link it to more contemporary events. We talk about drug examples that they may be familiar with or see on commercials about on television or illicit drugs and how that's inspired legitimate drugs. For that particular course I try and incorporate a variety of teaching tools. Sometimes I'll play a song if it's related to a recreational drug for instance. It's part of pop culture, it's interwoven in and some illicit drugs also have a legitimate use too. So I talk a little bit about that to make those links just to give some variety and something they can relate to and then take it on from there to more serious topics."

Hudson also talks about how drugs are discovered. "Perseverance and serendipity play a large role in all science but in particular for that course there is serendipity in drug discovery. One example we look at is Viagra, it was originally developed as a treatment for angina and it had this side effect and that was capitalized on. There are many examples of the where ‘chance favors the prepared mind' and do something with it. The traditional way of discovering drugs is brute force with a lot of failure before you get the success. Perseverance is also a lesson that they learn as well." In this class there are no hands on demonstrations or labs. There are a few props though- he'll bring in some lab equipment to show how to make molecules, but there is not much opportunity for that.

The students say that they enjoy Hudson's relaxed teaching style. "That's one thing that I learned through time is to become a little bit less tense with teaching - just be more myself when I teach and it comes across to students."

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