Q&A with Chemistry Education Professor Ryan Stowe

Professor Ryan Stowe joined the Department of Chemistry as part of the Chemistry Education path. As professors John Moore and Bassam Shakhashiri retire, Stowe reflects on his reason for joining the department and on the future.

Why did you choose UW-Madison for your work in Chemistry Education?

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Professor Ryan Stowe

When I was being recruited, every interaction I had with staff and faculty in our department made it clear that chemists at UW-Madison care deeply about creating meaningful spaces for students to engage in “doing chemistry”. This passion manifested in all sorts of formal (e.g., post-talk Q & A) and informal (e.g., dinner conversations) settings. To have a useful research program in Chemistry Education, you have to work with thoughtful, invested departmental colleagues. I am fortunate to have many such colleagues in this department!

Could one of you comment on John’s or Bassam’s legacy?

I know John quite a bit better than I know Bassam, so I’d be better positioned to comment on his legacy.

John has influenced Chemistry Education is several profound ways. As Editor and Chief of the Journal of Chemical Education (JCE), he and Betty shaped one of the premier journals for Chemistry Education scholarship. They fashioned JCE into a venue for publications of practical value to classroom teachers (e.g., demonstrations, assessment strategies) and of significance to those of us who study chemistry learning. John and Betty also modernized JCE by digitiziorng the whole archive of past issues (stretching back to the 1920s) and ensuring each current issue was published online. One consequence of modernizing the Journal was a substantially shortened time to publication; something for which I am very grateful!

In addition to directing the Journal of Chemical Education, John has long been a champion of outreach to the Wisconsin community and beyond. As director of the Institute for Chemical Education, he helped create and disseminate a wide variety of curricular resources to teachers around the world. Additionally, he has led curricular transformations of college chemistry, including the NSF-funded New Traditions program. John is passionate about free access to high quality educational materials and so has recently dedicated substantial effort toward creation of interactive, Open Educational Resources (some of which are used at UW-Madison).

What plans do you have for moving forward with the program in our department? Are you working together on this, or separately – each with a different focus?

Sam and I are both interested in understanding how we can create spaces for students to make sense of events in the world in terms of molecular behavior. The sorts of learning environments we study and the methods we use differ somewhat, but I think it’s fair to say our goals are fairly similar.

I am excited to continue growing our path by recruiting great graduate students, increasing our Chemistry Education course offerings (Sam has an exciting Special Topics course he is offing next spring!), and continuing to work with the community of educators in our department to improve local learning environments. I have also enjoyed getting the chance to work with scholars in the UW-Madison department of Curriculum & Instruction. Hopefully we can continue to foster interdisciplinary partnerships on our campus and beyond!

Are there any key things you learned from working with Bassam or John?

I was very fortunate to share an office with John and Betty for my first few months on-campus (pre-COVID). In addition to introducing me to everyone I needed to know in the department, John and Betty helped me forge collaborative relationships with excellent instructors. Brian Esselman, Aubrey Ellison, Jeff Martell and I continue to work together to create organic chemistry learning environments focused on explaining phenomena. John and Betty helped me appreciate the rich expertise of thoughtful practitioners.

Do you have plans for outreach?

My group and I work with high school teachers to create and support high school chemistry learning environments focused on making sense of phenomena. I intend to continue cultivating professional learning communities across the country directed at promoting sensemaking in chemistry class. I consider empowering educators to engage students in “doing chemistry” to be the most impactful sort of outreach.