September 16, 2019 | 63° F

Rutgers' Darrin York recognized as 2014 NJ Professor of the Year

Photo by Nick Romanenko and Nick Romanenko |
Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology, BioMaps Institute & Center for Integrative Proteomics Darrin M. York with a representation of a quantum mechanically derived electrostatic multipole moment in a crystalline lattice.

Learning how to teach helps to teach you how to learn, said Darrin York, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. 

That is the teaching philosophy that led the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education to recognize York as the 2014 New Jersey Professor of the Year.

The foundation has offered the Professor of the Year award since 1981, and this year, professors in 31 states earned the distinction.

York, who earned his doctorate in chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, joined Rutgers in 2010. 

Kamal Kahn, director of the Office for Diversity and Academic Success in the Sciences, said York is a hardworking professor who is patient and accommodating with his students and colleagues. 

York came to Rutgers and redeveloped the chemistry program to help students understand it better, Kahn said. 

“He listens before he reacts,” he said. “The time he spends with students is extraordinary for a professor.”

York said being named New Jersey Professor of the Year came as a surprise because New Jersey is a crowded state with so many great professors. 

He was especially excited about the award because it was teaching-related, as opposed to being research-related, which tends to be recognized more often.

“Rutgers is an extremely supportive environment for both research and teaching, but it was nice to know someone was paying attention to the teaching aspect,” York said.

That being said, York believes the lines between research and teaching are blurred. An effective teacher should constantly strive to learn more, he said.

York said he is always excited to tell students how a topic in class is related to his and others’ research. 

“You never really learn a topic until you have to teach it,” he said. “Especially in classes like chemistry, where there is a lot of problem solving, and you have to be able to get inside students’ heads to diagnose what they did wrong.”

York and his colleagues develop multi-scale theoretical methods to study the behavior of biological molecules. No matter what he is doing, York said he has a passion for improving the quality of the chemistry program at Rutgers. 

A major part of that improvement has been increasing the amount of teacher-student interactions and student-student interactions. 

In addition to teaching chemistry, York helps coordinate the general chemistry classes. He said it is always nice to be involved in students’ first experiences with college-level chemistry.

He also noticed flaws in the program and has been working ever since to improve them. One of the things that first came up was the ineffectiveness of recitations. 

“It’s really great that Rutgers offers recitations, because not all universities supplement regular auditorium-style lecture with this, but I don’t think it was being done optimally,” York said.

The difficulty with recitations was that many students had difficulty fitting them into their schedules. They were only offered once per week, and many had more than 50 students in them. Because of the large population in recitation, students are more reluctant to ask questions in large classes, York said. 

York wanted to find a way that students could attend recitations many times at their own convenience. He developed Chemistry Interactive Problem Solving Sessions, virtual recitations offered at 30 different time slots per week.

With this program students are now required to check into at least one online recitation per week, but can do more for additional practice. 

York said students have found it beneficial because they can choose any time slot they want and get instantaneous feedback on their online quizzes. Students also like the anonymity, which has encourages more questions than in-person recitations. 

Barry Qualls, vice president of Undergraduate Education, was the 2006 New Jersey Professor of the Year. Qualls said he, too, once worried about the ways introductory courses might “turn off” students who came to work in the sciences. 

 “One of the things with general chemistry is that kids don’t usually come in well-prepared,” York said. “They might think they are prepared from high school, but this is a whole new level.”

The first step to becoming a scientist is being able to translate chemistry concepts to problems outside of the scope from what is taught, York said. 

To help students better prepare themselves, York decided to create a free online Coursera course called “Preparation for General Chemistry,” which has had more than 21,000 students enrolled. 

He also developed “Chemistry Breakfast Clubs,” where he brings in breakfast and coffee to meet early in the morning with struggling students. 

Qualls said York deserved the award because he is working to find ways to create scientists of the future and to generate the kind of excitement about science this country needs if it is to use the creative talent of its citizens. 

York once wrote in a teaching summary that his philosophy of teaching undergraduates is to bring the same excitement he feels for research and his own continuing education into the classroom, Qualls said.

“These are the traits of a Professor of the Year — an endless intellectual curiosity and an enthusiasm for communicating his excitement to his undergraduates,” Qualls said. 

Carley Ens

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