Two blackboards, pieces of white chalk and an eraser get a hearty workout as Scott Pattison writes and draws during a biochemistry class — an explanation here, a molecule there. By the end of a 50-minute session, he’s filled chunks of the boards, erased and repeated 20 times.
The drawings are general shapes, not complex chemical structures. Students, who study the chalk marks before replicating them in their notebooks, welcome the simplifications.
“You’re not overwhelmed by what he just drew on the chalkboard,” said Kevin Gries of Muncie, who took Pattison’s principles of biochemistry, both 1 and 2, last year for his doctoral work.
And practicing drawing structures properly in class helps students’ understanding and on tests, said Sarah Pruitt, a biochem major taking the first semester of the class.
“He’ll do a couple of examples and say, ‘OK, guys. Draw (whatever it is).’ And he’ll give us a few minutes to draw, and then he draws it and says, ‘OK. This is what it is. Any questions?’ So many times, in other classes, I understand it in class and then get home and do homework, and then I’m lost. To get that affirmation in class, that you’re doing it correctly, really helps and boosts your confidence when you do homework.”
Those are some of the reasons Pattison, whose fairly traditional lectures focus on molecules created and used by living things, received the 2016 Outstanding Teaching Award at Ball State’s Fall Faculty Convocation.
It’s very, very quiet
The most silent area on campus may be room 255 in Cooper Physical Science Building before his noon class Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. There’s virtually no sound as 30-plus students settle into seats; their phones don’t even hum.
Pattison thinks it’s the topic’s intensity and that the class has a mix of undergrad and grad students who don’t know one another. Students see things differently.
“I think it speaks of the respect students have for him,” said Gries, who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in human bioenergetics, part of the School of Kinesiology in the College of Health. “They know that when class starts, it’s his time to explain material.”
Pruitt, a sophomore from Indianapolis, agrees.
“The first time he ever put something on the board, I thought, ‘I have no idea what you just drew.’ Then I thought, ‘All right. You’ll teach me. We’ll figure it out.’ So I think that initial respect I had for him that first day has carried over, and I think that may be the same for some of my classmates. I admire what he knows about the subject.”
The material is key for those who want to go into various areas and careers, from medicine to pharmaceutical labs, clinical research to forensic science.
At the front of the room, Pattison rolls up two wide projection screens that mostly cover a couple of 12-foot-wide blackboards. He writes “Quiz Friday” atop the right board and, at noon, greets the class. After putting the day’s outline at the top of the left board and reminding students of the quiz and when worksheets are due, they’re off on a jam-packed lesson.
The start is a review of the previous session’s topic, nucleosides (compounds often found in DNA and RNA), then they journey to new material about phosphate energy (a metabolic energy source that all organisms use), Gibbs free energy (a property that predicts if a process will happen naturally with certain factors present) and nucleotides (DNA and RNA building blocks that are cousins of nucleosides). The finish is a quick recap.
“It’s a hard subject. I was going to be a biochemist. I took a biochemistry class, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s no way,’ ” she said, laughing. “I wish I had had Dr. Pattison.”
Explanations are key
Despite the subject’s inherent complexity — you first need a year of general chemistry and a year of organic chemistry — students say Pattison leaves no one behind.
“He would always stop and ask if we understood everything,” said senior Elizabeth C. Wilson, who took biochem 1 and 2 last year. “And if anyone didn’t, he would always be able to explain it in a different way. If you don’t get it, then there’s another way to connect to it. And if you do get it, there’s just another way to remember.”
Pattison’s department chair praises that ability. “He’s able to keep guiding them and keep them on point with the material so they don’t get lost,” said Rob Sammelson.
That guidance includes helping students get to the right answer with a quick question or brief statement — and no embarrassment.
“Nothing was ever a wrong answer with him,” said Wilson, a biology major from Indianapolis. “If your answer was maybe not quite right, he’d show the way that it works in with what he’s talking about.”
Students’ answers help assure him that he’s getting through. “If I ask a question, and I get more than one response, that’s a good indicator. If there are three responses, and they’re different, that’s a good indicator that they’re thinking. Good, thoughtful responses are great.”
It’s about relating
Links that Pattison makes, to the material and to students, also draw compliments.
Anthony Knepp, a senior from Hendersonville, Tennessee, prizes how his prof associates two areas of study.
“It feels almost like this big capstone course. He does a really good job of connecting all these biology and chemistry concepts together into one general field,” said the premed and psychology double major who’s taking biochem 1. “And you can tell he’s very passionate about it.”
Wilson values how Pattison relates science to everyday life.
“One example he would always use when he was trying to explain different processes was his granddaughter (Savannah, now 17). In certain situations as a youngster, she would not be able to take responsibility for some of her actions without being told to do them. And that was like enzyme functions in her body,” because the body must tell them what to do.
That’s one goal for Pattison: having students understand that biochemistry “is not magic. It’s just chemicals, and we can’t see them doing what they’re doing. Although scientists use a lot of jargon, it’s really down-to-earth. I’d really like for them to leave thinking biochemistry’s not so esoteric.”
In his office, he tells another story of Savannah’s younger days: “She comes home from school and lies down and sleeps. So, she’s stable and unreactive, and those are equivalent kinds of things.” Just like atoms that don’t seek more bonds because they’re happy as they are.
Adorning one of his office walls are about 10 pieces of Savannah’s drawings from years ago, which students see when they drop by to seek help or check in about labs.
“He’s very understanding,” Pruitt said. “I’ve been to his office a couple of times, and he’s always willing to help you. He always has a smile on his face.”
He also can be challenging, Sammelson said.
“Undergrads, he can be very patient with. But he can push the master’s and Ph.D. students that are doing physiology or upper-level work as part of serving on their thesis and dissertation committees.”
And his broad interests pull students in, as does the soft, classical music playing in his office.
“I think he’s very personable,” said Knepp, whose minors include music performance. When he’s sought help from Pattison, the two also have chatted about symphonies. “That simple moment, where I’m able to connect with him, translates into the classroom, and that’s something that makes me much more willing to learn.”
Time for a change?
On a campus focused more and more on immersive learning, the soft-spoken faculty member said he never thought he’d get a teaching award. Heck, he didn’t even pick up on a clue about winning it.
“It was unbelievable. I would’ve guessed that they would’ve chosen someone who’s tried new ways of teaching. The chair hinted around that I should wear a good sports coat to the convocation, and I didn’t take the hint. I mean, I did wear a sports coat, but I didn’t recognize the hint.”
While students give his teaching rave reviews, has he ever been tempted to modernize his class?
Yep. Pattison tried a cool computer curriculum. “One program’s like a ‘Star Wars’ movie, where you can zoom in and go up inside very, very, very complicated molecules that have thousands of atoms.”
Quizzes and tests showed that it wasn’t helping students’ comprehension. “I don’t think it got students to think enough. That may be because they’re used to seeing this kind of really fantastic graphics outside of school.”
His lectures were back, which colleagues applaud.
“It isn’t flashy. It isn’t gee-whiz. In some ways, it’s a very simple approach, but it’s just right-on,” said Lang. “It’s such a complicated course, and yet he’ll do it in a way that lets the students understand. He makes it doable for the students and still at a very high level.”
A clear love of teaching
All the praise for Pattison ties into his love of teaching. So, how’d it become his career?
He pauses for a while, as he often does while considering an answer. “Chemistry’s an experimental science. We do experiments, and we see the results. I got into some teaching as a post-doc and found out that teaching is as much an experimental science as anything.”
After being hired by Ball State for a four-year term as department chair in 1988, he didn’t seek a second term so he could spend more time teaching. He says that’s also why he does little research, outside of what he calls his classroom experiments.
“I can’t think of a job that’s any better, really, than what I’m doing.”
Students and colleagues are grateful.
“He really enjoys teaching biochemistry,” Pruitt said. “When he’s drawing things on the board or when he’s speaking, you can totally see his passion.”
Lang is delighted he’s here. “We were very lucky to find someone who is such a fine teacher. It’s always interested me that he’s had, as one should, a range of grades in his class. Yet he has, consistently, the highest evaluations I’ve seen in the department. So students don’t mind getting Cs. He’s able to hold the rigor of that course and still let the students know that he’s there to help them.”
Sammelson notes how helpful Pattison is to students. “Besides just the patience, in the class or in office hours, he goes out of his way if they need to make accommodations to get help at other times.”
And Lang lauds her co-worker’s even temper with students. “He’s got an inordinate amount of patience,” she said. “I think students appreciate that. It sets him apart. Other people have teaching skills, but I don’t think anybody has that combination of patience, commitment and dedication to his students.”
Ultimately, his influence is clear.
“He’s one of my favorite professors. He obviously cares,” said Pruitt, who may get a master’s and go into forensic science or biochemistry research in the pharmaceutical industry.
“I’m very passionate about what I want to do, and to see him hold that passion in the same subject is an inspiration to me of what I could be. I look to him as a role model. He really makes me want to do well and push forward.”