Better Learning through Chemistry

The group’s acronym makes it sound like an antacid, but MAALACT actually is devoted to calming the upset stomachs of undergraduate chemistry students.

For its 35th annual meeting, about 75 members of the Middle Atlantic Association of Liberal Arts Chemistry Teachers, representing 44 colleges and universities, gathered the first weekend in October on the Moravian campus, where their host was Professor R. Daniel Libby, chair of the Department of Chemistry.

The meeting focused on novel methods for teaching chemistry, a topic dear to Libby’s heart. A painstaking scientist who spends his laboratory time verifying the complex derivations that describe the workings of an oxidative enzyme, Libby is a free-thinking radical when it comes to teaching.

Trained in a tradition that emphasized rote retention of chemical equations, Libby decided as far back as 1977—13 years before he came to Moravian—that there must be a better way. After discovering the cognitive theories of the French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, he refined them into a method of instruction for the sciences that he calls “learning cycle” teaching.

A desire to teach the student, rather than the subject, is clear from the MAALACT conference agenda, which included sessions on “guided inquiry,” “problem-based learning,” and “peer-led team learning”—phrases that mean the students are investigating science with their own hands instead of writing down the professor’s experiments from undergraduate days.

There was also a session called “Writing In and Beyond the Chemistry Curriculum,” organized by Carol Baker Libby, an adjunct professor at Moravian. She is participating in the College’s new approach to freshman composition called Writing 100, in which teachers of many disciplines use their fields as starting points for helping students learn to write. Baker Libby uses the New York Times as a text for current developments in the sciences and the basis for student essays.

The exchange of information among attendees was made easier, said Libby, by Moravian’s Center for Information Technology, a.k.a. the computer guys. Libby’s letter of thanks, which he circulated to the entire campus, praised CIT for “performing above and beyond the call of duty in accommodating the computing needs of our presenters.”