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   from the issue of April 14, 2005

Creativity, passion guide OTICA award winner


Chemistry is life for Bill McLaughlin.

Bill McLaughlin
Bill McLaughlin

A senior lecturer in the subject, McLaughlin continues to put a fresh face on a 200-year-old discipline. And, for investing his entire self into the teaching process, McLaughlin received the Outstanding Teaching and Instructional Creativity Award - the highest for teaching that the NU system offers.

"I feel very honored because I know it has gone to some very esteemed colleagues," McLaughlin said of the honor. "I wanted to be a teacher since I was 15, but I didn't know whether I would be good at it or whether I would like it or not."

After 36 years at the front of classrooms, McLaughlin knows the true reward stems from his contact with students.

"Every day I feel like I get little OTICA awards by interacting with my students," McLaughlin said. "That may sound corny but I really feel I get rewarded by interacting with each student."

Those same students praise his teaching by packing his classrooms and giving up high evaluations.

Allison Coenen, a sophomore in pre-pharmacy, faces an academic career full of chemistry lessons. She took a general chemistry class from McLaughlin and has nothing but praise for him.

"He's honestly interested in how students do and is more than willing to do anything he has to do to help us understand the material," Coenen said, adding that he makes room for extra office hours and study sessions.

McLaughlin's approach also makes Coenen want to attend class every day.

"I think he does a great job dealing with a large amount of students compared to other large classes," she said. "He relates to us and talks about things we are interested in, like chemicals that we might actually know about. He knows what students care about and how to get us to listen.

"I'm excited that I got to reap some of the rewards of him being such a good teacher. He's the only teacher that I tell people you have to take because he's the best."

Bringing original approaches to century-old subject matter is important to him.

"I try to come to class with attention-getting devices, use demonstrations that have a point, and use humor whenever I can. It's fun to try to be creative with that," he said. "You look at things that everybody else looks at but in a different way.

"I want to make the subject of chemistry interesting to people, I don't want necessarily to make them chemists."

His goal is to put chemistry into context with other arts and sciences. Just as art is one viewpoint, McLaughlin tries to give students a chemistry view - that the world is made of molecules.

"Chemistry will never tell us why we are here, but it will go a long way to telling us about what goes on while we're here," McLaughlin said. "I try to bring that to students every day."

According to Coenen, McLaughlin's instruction proceeds at a good pace and taps the right amount of detail. She added that the material remains challenging, but McLaughlin makes it possible to do well in the class.

McLaughlin did his doctoral studies in the early 1980s with James Carr, current professor of chemistry at UNL and one of McLaughlin's nominators.

"His reputation with students is just amazing," Carr said. "He's known as Dr. Mac by the students and they fight to get into his sections."

"He writes dozens of letters of recommendations because he knows the students well enough. Grades and retention are high and the enthusiasm of students is high."

Each of McLaughlin's lectures is worked out and thought through carefully, Carr said. Furthermore, his techniques - personal and technological - lead to student excitement and a great learning environment.

"It feels great to work with him and he sets a high standard for other teachers. He's enthusiastic about chemistry and science in general, and how it impacts students' lives," Carr said.

McLaughlin's creative techniques don't compromise learning. High standards are critical, McLaughlin said, but he enters into the fray with his students.

It would be odd for him to have those standards, he said, if, for example, he didn't create new exams every year and just used the previous ones.

"The standards are there," he said, "but we are on the same team."

However, the students make his success possible.

"Students here are not like students everywhere else," McLaughlin said. "There's a politeness, they aren't apathetic... I'll never forget the honesty of the students, the amount of integrity they had in the way they do things."



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