San Marcos,
16:21 PM

Chemistry Professor's New Book Appeals to Undergraduates

By Tim Meehan

A university professor’s career path is a winding labyrinth of research, teaching, grant writing and advising students of varying skillsets and interest levels. Carving time to sit down to write a textbook can sometimes be the most daunting task.

Cal State San Marcos chemistry professor Michael Schmidt received his undergraduate degree from Princeton, his Ph.D. from Stanford and spent a few postdoctorate years working in a lab at Johns Hopkins. So when he set out to write his first textbook, instead of choosing an Ivy League-type audience, he chose an area with a large need that would reach a wide range of undergraduate science students.

Hence the birth of “Being a Scientist: Tools for Science Students,” a title just recently published by Toronto Press. It’s a publication he hopes will have an immediate impact for teachers looking to take the many aspects of scientific life beyond the classroom and lab.

“One of the scientific writing texts I used went from a fairly readable first edition to a citation-heavy, tedious second edition,” Schmidt said. “I could see that the authors were trying to model the kind of writing that is done in science, but that wasn’t working at all for my undergraduate students, who needed something that could keep their interest and be very accessible. So I vowed to make my book easy to read. I saved the difficult reading for when we actually look at reading papers in the scientific literature.”

The textbook, which comes in paperback, hardcover and as an e-book, was published in November by the Higher Education Division of the University of Toronto Press. It’s 320 pages and written specifically for a semester-long course based on teaching research and communication skills to undergraduate science majors.

While many science textbooks are heavy on technical explanations of concepts, Schmidt’s textbook is written in a conversational style. It will greatly aid in an undergraduate’s ability to understand the historical and philosophical roots of modern science while learning basic research skills.

“I didn’t start out with a strong belief that these topics were important,” Schmidt said. “I found these topics fun, and my students seem to enjoy learning about these things as well. They give students a sense that they’re part of a long but constantly evolving tradition. It also helps them see why we do things the way we do them and equips them to counter some of the critiques of science that sometimes come up. The philosophy of science ended up providing me with a unifying theme to connect such diverse elements as ethics, literature searching, peer review and writing style.”

Schmidt took a different approach during the writing process. While many textbook authors work on and complete their work with a publisher already in tow, he completed the book and then shopped it around to publishers.

“It was a different enough sort of book that I really felt I needed to be able to show how everything fit together in order to convince a publisher to take it,” he said.

That wasn’t the only part of the process that was different. While some college professors shy away from student feedback on their work, Schmidt actually encouraged students to read online drafts of whatever part of the book he had finished.

The idea for the subject of the book began formulating when Schmidt took over a course called CHEM 300, Literature of Chemistry, in the mid-1990s. In that course, he had his students perform small, safe research projects at home using household materials in an effort to provide them something to write about.

What he began to learn from these projects was students needed help with all aspects of the research process, from idea inception to idea refinement and proposal to research ethics.

“All these different topics began to be incorporated into the course, but there were no textbooks out there that covered all these topics,” he said. “At first, I just lectured about them, but that didn’t leave much class time to do active learning activities related to these topics. Writing the book meant that students could get all the background information by reading, and then I could use class time to discuss, answer questions and provide practice.”

While his book writing days are behind him – at least for now – Schmidt has a renewed energy for lab research at CSUSM.

“Now that the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has a master’s degree, I need to put more intellectual energy into my laboratory research so that I can help develop cutting-edge research experiences for our graduate students,” Schmidt said. “I have recently changed my research focus from the biomineralization and crystallization research I have been doing for the last two decades back to the transition metal chemistry I did in my Ph.D. research, and I have a lot of catching up to do.”

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