Vol. 4, No. 30 / April 15-April 21, 2002
Nancy J. Ashmore

Innovative role-playing labs earn Walters 2002 Brasted Award

On May 21, Professor of Chemistry John P. Walters will receive the 2002 Robert Brasted Award, presented every three years by the Minnesota American Chemical Society to an educator, nominated by his or her peers, for contributions to teaching chemistry at the college level. The award recognizes the impact Walters has made through his development of a role-playing approach to the teaching of analytical chemistry.

The award will be presented at a meeting of the Minnesota ACS section held at St. Olaf. Walters, the featured speaker, will deliver an award address titled, “Role-Playing Interdependent Classes and Labs in Analytical Chemistry (Who’s in Charge Around Here Anyway?).” The award presentation and address begin at 7:30 p.m. in Science Center 280; the public is invited and encouraged to attend.

For centuries chemists have been taking a smidgen of this and combining it with a dash of that, then standing back to see what happened. John Walters is no exception, but instead of generating a big bang, a flash of light or a new polymer, his experiment created an innovative and exciting way to teach college-level analytical chemistry that is being emulated by several of the nation’s top research universities. He did it by combining a technique learned as part of a church service project with lessons he learned on the job at Kodak and American Can Co. research labs.

Professor of Chemistry John Walters and his wife, Barbara, moved in 1982 to Northfield from Madison, Wis., where John had taught graduate courses and supervised Ph.D. candidates for 17 years. Shortly after they arrived, they got involved in a Stephen Ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church, a project that trains laypeople to become what Walters calls “non-judgmental companions” to individuals dealing with emotional, physical or spiritual problems. During a conference he suddenly saw how the role-playing techniques that were enabling him and other trainees to “assume responsibility for our own education” might be applied to his analytical chemistry class. He tried it, on just one of the laboratory exercises, and, putting it unscientifically, “the kids went nuts.”

Over the next few years Walters expanded that single lab to eight and then 12. All of them expose students to the practice of modern analytical chemistry and give them hands-on experience using spectrophotometers, pH meters, liquid chromatographs and computer interfacing. The labs also teach them about the many different hats a professional analytical chemist wears, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes as part of a work team.

“I didn’t invent role-playing,” Walters is quick to point out, “and the labs are not directly comparable to what happens in industry because the roles rotate, but by placing students into collaborative groups, or ‘companies,’ rather than pitting individuals against one another, we get much closer to the reality of the work world than the exercises we performed before.”

It is clear the moment you walk into the lab in Science Center 321 that something different is happening there. For one thing, the ceiling is festooned with umbrellas. They were hung there originally to protect sensitive electrical equipment from the leaks to which the Science Center roof was prone. Repairs have reduced those, but Walters retains the bumbershoots, just in case — and because they “lend a touch of color to the lab.”

Also hanging overhead are four names: Laura, Bruce, Deano and Wendy. These are the names of the “companies.” They are also the names of four former students who taught Walters something. Or, as he puts it, four students who “blew me out of the water.” It tells you something about Walters when you hear that one is a student who rejected the role-playing scenarios.

“It’s not for everyone,” he admits, “though it seems to engage everyone, top students and those who are usually on the bottom. It flattens the curve, by bringing the lower students up.” Students in the companies play four different roles: Chemist, Hardware, Software and Manager.

There is freedom within the mission (Assistant Professor of Chemistry Paul Jackson and Associate Professor of Chemistry Mary Walczak, who currently teach the analytical chemistry course, say they rarely see the same resolutions twice), and the positions rotate regularly, so that everyone is exposed to the differing roles. The manager is responsible for guiding the team; the grade he or she gets (in an interview with the instructor called a “job evaluation”) is the grade that everyone gets.

“In real life you don't get to pick who you work with,” notes Walters. Accordingly, the teams are assembled by the professors. Only infrequently has he intervened when a company was having trouble. When a manager came in complaining about an incompetent chemist, for instance, and insisted that Walters “fire” him, Walters said, “Fine. I'll fire him, but you lose the position.” The manager found another way to resolve the issue and bring the mission to a successful conculsion.

Every lab has lessons like this embedded within it, along with sizeable doses of chemistry technique. The instructions in the “Downsizing Dilemma” laboratory specify, for instance, that “Manager has to decide if a robotic method can compensate for firing yourself, while Chemist prepares the standard solutions for manual and robotic use, Software prepares a ‘robot’ using a data analysis spreadsheet, and Hardware runs two spectrophotometers and a robot at the same time.”

In another exercise the manager has to decide whether it is ethical and/or wise to follow a competitor's example and start claiming that the Easter egg grass he/she manufactures is “edible.” This involves “reverse engineering” the competitor's product to see if it is something new (and possibly patent-protected) or something that could be replicated — IF the manager thought it was a good marketing idea.

What is the professor's role in these scenarios? Walters says he serves as a paid “consultant.” If a student asks a factual question (”What will happen when I flip this switch?), he or she will get the answer for free. If the student asks “Should I flip this switch?” — well, that's a judgment call, notes Walters, and outside the terms of his consulting contract; he bills the questioner an apple or a banana.

John Walters is retiring next year, but his teaching technique is not. It’s being used by on-campus colleagues and by chemistry educators in places small (a high school) and large (the University of Michigan, where role-playing is now used to teach first-year chemistry to a class of 800 students, and Walter’s alma mater, Purdue, where 200-400 students learn medicinal chemistry through role-playing).

The Brasted Award is the fifth time Walter’s innovative teaching has been recognized. In 1988 he received the Manufacturing Chemists Association Award for excellence in chemistry teaching; he has also been honored by the American Chemical Society Analytical Division, the Dreyfus Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation.

Walters graduated with distinction from Purdue University in 1960. He then went to the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he completed a doctorate in analytical chemistry and emission spectroscopy. He joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1965, rising to the rank of full professor before moving to St. Olaf in order to focus more on undergraduate teaching. He and his wife, Barbara, have two sons and four grandchildren.