Teaching Philosophy and Interests of William F. Polik



Teaching Philosophy


While a teacher can distribute a syllabus, deliver lectures, grade exams, and assign grades, all actual learning is done by the student.  Thus I view my role in the teaching/learning process not only as a “communicator,” but also as a “facilitator” and “motivator” whereby I empower and encourage students to learn.  At the outset of every class, I describe where we are heading and what we can expect to learn.  I welcome learners of all styles into the classroom through the use of different teaching styles and techniques in my classes (e.g., lecture, real-life applications, demonstrations, discussion, worksheets, group exercises, student presentations).  I attempt to interject some of my personality into the course through enthusiasm, humor, and personal experiences.  I encourage student questions during and outside of classes, and I incorporate independent projects into my courses as a means for pursuing individual student interests.  My lectures are designed not only to explain and summarize concepts, but also to provide context and links to topics beyond what we are immediately learning in the class.  My assignments include exercises at many levels, from opportunities for students to master basic skills and ideas to applications of these ideas to new situations.  I believe it imperative to offer constructive feedback on all assigned student work so that students may assess their progress and improve their learning.  And I strive to be available as a resource for questions about course content or concerns on any other issues that may otherwise affect a student’s learning.


In addition to helping students learn course content, I think it is a teacher’s role to help students develop broader skills that are important in all fields and future careers.  These skills include oral and written communication, critical thinking, and consideration of issues from multiple viewpoints.  I use discussion sections for student presentations of homework problems in order to build student confidence, improve oral communication skills, and instill a “class spirit” toward learning the course material.  The laboratory curriculum I have developed includes a strong emphasis on writing skills and substantive discussion, along with several opportunities for oral presentations.


I am a strong proponent of a “hands-on” approach in the laboratory, making it an active learning experience.  Laboratory courses should be instrument-rich, and all instruments in the Department should be available for appropriately trained students.  I also feel that computer technology should be used where it can enhance student understanding beyond traditional teaching methods, for example in numerical and symbolic evaluation, visualization, interactive exploration, and quantum chemistry calculations.


Courses Taught


I enjoy teaching both introductory and advanced classes.  Introductory courses allow one to teach to a broad student body with widely ranging interests and skills.  Introductory courses provide important opportunities for encouraging this diverse group of students to pursue further study in science.  And it can be refreshing to teach topics that are not part of one’s research specialty!  Upper-level courses tend to involve students who are already engaged in the subject matter, wish to increase their expertise in the field, and appreciate the subtle nuances of the material that experts in the field find so captivating.


I have taught the following courses at Hope College:

  • General Chemistry
  • General Chemistry Laboratory
  • Physical Chemistry (thermodynamics, kinetics, and quantum mechanics)
  • Physical Chemistry Laboratory
  • Chemical Modeling Laboratory (computational chemistry)
  • Advanced Spectroscopy Laboratory (NMR, mass spec, laser)
  • Structure Dynamics and Synthesis (group theory, physical organic chemistry, molecular orbital theory, computational chemistry)


I would also enjoy the opportunity to develop advanced courses in my areas of specialty:  spectroscopy, group theory, quantum mechanics, and computational chemistry.


Curriculum Development


Just as chemistry is a dynamic and evolving field, the teaching of chemistry must evolve to maintain relevance and stay abreast of new developments.  I have been active in the following areas of curriculum development at Hope College:


  • Developed a new Advanced Spectroscopy course, in which students learn the principles and operating techniques of modern spectroscopic instruments.  Nine weeks of this course address the physical principles of FT-NMR spectroscopy (net magnetization vector, phase sensitive detection, signal processing, Fourier transform, 1-D pulse sequences, coupling and decoupling, 2-D correlation methods), and the remainder addresses mass spectrometry and laser spectroscopy.


  • Developed a new Chemical Modeling Laboratory course, in which student use existing models (quantum chemistry programs) and create their own models (using Mathcad).  Computers are used to solve these models and calculate chemical properties and reactivity.


  • Modernized the Physical Chemistry Laboratory with laser experiments, atmospheric chemistry, spreadsheet analysis, computer modeling, and collaborative exercises among student groups.


  • Emphasized writing skills in the chemistry curriculum by using a technical report writing style for physical chemistry laboratory reports, by introducing anonymous peer-review of student writing through which students share examples of their writing and learn from each other, and by developing a “Chemistry Writing Checklist” used in many of Hope College’s chemistry courses to emphasize the universal importance of writing mechanics, style, and substance.



Computational Resources for Teaching


The World Wide Web (WWW) is transforming the ability of students to access and use information by computer.  I have established two major software projects that use the WWW to enhance student learning.  My collaborators are Hope College undergraduate science majors, who continue to maintain the code.


  • Discus (www.discusware.com) is a web-based discussion board that permits students to conduct online discussions.  By posting messages and reading contributions from others, students create a learning environment that reflects student-generated questions and ideas.  Discus discussion boards have been used to discuss assigned homework problems, to share lab results for class analysis, to initiate student discussions about assigned reading, and even to construct course web pages.  To date, there are over 5,000 registered implementations of Discus at educational websites throughout the world (out of over 60,000 total installations.


  • WebMO (www.webmo.net) is a web-based computational chemistry interface for Gaussian, Mopac, and Gamess.  Using just an ordinary web browser, students are able to setup, submit, and view state-of-the-art computational chemistry calculations.  A molecular editor and 3-D visualization tools are built into WebMO.  The ease-of-use and universal accessibility of WebMO make it possible to use computational chemistry throughout the chemistry curriculum, rather than only in specialized courses or classrooms.  WebMO was enthusiastically reviewed by Science (August 10, 2001, p. 1019) and C&E News (April 8, 2002, p. 38).  To date, there are over 400 registered implementations of WebMO at educational and research institutions worldwide.


National Involvement


In addition to my local curriculum reform efforts, I am involved in several efforts to influence chemical education at the national level.


  • I am a member of the American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training (ACS CPT).  CPT is a 15 member national committee that sets the ACS chemistry curriculum guidelines.  CPT also conducts and publishes surveys to monitor trends in chemical education, such as the recent survey of graduate education in chemistry, the survey of library and journal usage, and the Directory of Graduate Research.


  • I am a past member of the ACS Division of Chemical Education physical chemistry examination committee, which produced the most recent thermodynamics, quantum, and dynamics ACS examinations.


  • I am chairperson of the Beckman Scholar Program Executive Committee, which awards the nation’s premier undergraduate research scholarships and is sponsored by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.  This award not only recognizes the most outstanding institutions carrying out undergraduate research, but it also highlights the importance of undergraduate research as part of a science curriculum.


Scholarship of Teaching


Teaching is both an art and a science.  Just as laboratory research projects begin with a clear goal, use established methodologies, uncover new and important knowledge, and report the results in a peer-reviewed publications, teaching can be subjected to a similar level of scholarly rigor.  I feel that it is important to publish useful and important teaching innovations.  Not only does this serve the chemistry community by disseminating curricular innovations, but it also adds clarity, rigor, and peer-review to curriculum development efforts.  Some of my teaching scholarship that has been published includes:

  • Description of a hands-on helium-neon laser for teaching the principles of laser operation, which has been adopted by 11 other colleges and universities (in Physical Chemistry: Developing a Dynamic Curriculum, ACS Books, Washington DC, 1993, 84)
  • Implementation of WWW discussion boards in chemistry education (J. Chem. Educ. 1999, 76, 704)
  • Spreadsheet method for the analysis of the infrared spectra of diatomic molecules (J. Chem. Educ. 1999, 76, 1302)


My goal in teaching is to transmit the excitement I feel about science to our next generation.  I am pursuing this goal by directly interacting with students in the classroom and laboratory, by making and disseminating innovations in the chemistry curriculum, and by influencing other teachers from the national level.