Barb Morra, inaugural recipient of the Chair’s Teaching Award

March 9, 2016 by Mandy Koroniak

When students first step into Prof. Barb Morra’s class, many do so with trepidation, taking CHM 247 (Introductory Organic Chemistry II) as a requirement, rather than out of a deep seated love of chemistry. It is Morra’s mission to change this sentiment, and she does so with passion and innovative teaching tools, for which she was named the inaugural recipient of the Chair’s Teaching Award in 2015.

To instill an appreciation and understanding for organic chemistry, Morra, who joined the Department of Chemistry as teaching stream faculty in 2012, employs 4 pillars in her teaching philosophy: teaching with clarity, enhancing critical thinking, making connections between course content and real-world applications, and creating an engaging learning environment.

One way that Morra helps students to recognize the role of organic chemistry in their everyday lives is through her Chemistry Connections slides in CHM 247, which showcase lecture material within real-world examples. Each slide demonstrates how a concept is found in nature, employed in research, or has industrial applications. When introducing carboxylic acid derivatives such as β-lactams for example, she highlights the history and function of penicillin antibiotics.

The Chemistry Connections slides have been so popular among her students that Morra now offers the class a bonus assignment in which they can design their own slide to share with their peers. Student submissions focus on a wide range of topics that relate to each student’s personal interest in the course content. In the past, topics have included natural products, pharmaceutical drugs, synthetic materials, biofuels, and even how IR spectroscopy is used in the authentication of ancient art.

Always striving to reach students in new and meaningful ways, Morra is also interested in developing innovative pedagogical methods for the classroom and laboratory. She accomplishes this through the CHM299 Research Opportunities Program (ROP) and the Department’s Chemistry Teaching Fellowship Program (CTFP). The CTFP is a unique program that enables graduate students to work with a faculty member to develop new approaches in teaching undergraduate material.

Last year, she designed a new CHM 247 tutorial with graduate student Christine Le (Lautens group) in which students construct retrosynthetic concept maps with the assistance of their tutor in an effort to design an efficient synthesis towards the “Molecule of the Week”. Retrosynthesis is a challenging mental process at first, but the concept mapping activity gives students an opportunity to work through it collaboratively while reviewing material in a really creative way. Not only do students enjoy this exercise and begin to understand the intricacies of retrosynthetic analysis, but they also find it incredibly useful on tests and examinations.

In another CTFP project, Morra and graduate student Jennifer Tsoung (recent graduate of the Lautens group) designed a reaction optimization study for the CHM 249 laboratory. In this instance, they created a role-playing activity that had students envision that they are a team of process chemists working at a pharmaceutical company tasked with the optimization of a Sandmeyer reaction towards the synthesis of lysergic acid. In this guided-inquiry experiment, students explore the effects of a variety of reaction parameters using HPLC analysis. Following the experiment, students evaluate class results to decide on the best conditions based on reaction conversion, purity and green chemistry principles. This project was another success with students, who Morra would find huddled in the hall, talking about the data.

These kinds of activities are exemplary of what Morra sees as an important shift amongst educators towards guided inquiry learning. These are pedagogical activities that involve critical thinking and student decision making in activities where outcomes are often unknown. This is contrary to traditional pedagogical styles in which students might listen to a lecture with little interaction, or follow a recipe-type laboratory experiment. “I’m trying to inspire creativity in my students and ultimately help prepare them for future careers in research and education by promoting strong problem solving and critical thinking skills” says Morra.

The big pay off? Those CHM 247 students so hesitant at the beginning of the course report that it ended up being their favourite course and that they are considering future enrollment in other organic chemistry courses. This is evidence of teaching excellence, for sure, and another reason why the Department of Chemistry is pleased to have Morra on its team.