In the Classroom with Gary Schuster

In the Classroom with Gary Schuster

In the Classroom with Gary Schuster

Gary Schuster gives Peter Pan partial credit for inspiring his 50-year career in academia.

“He never had to grow up,” Schuster said. “Being in academia, allows you to maintain a child-like curiosity for your entire life.”

Being surrounded by intellectually curious students also helps.

“Every year, there is a new class of enthusiastic young people, many who hope to change the world. It’s infectious and impossible to ignore,” he said.

Over the course of his career, he has seen countless teaching fads and trends come, then go. But he believes the essentials remain the same.

“It really comes down to a couple of things. Both seem to be highly valued by students,” said Schuster, the Vasser Woolley Professor and Regents Professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The first thing is to be prepared.

“Know what you want to do and accomplish in the classroom,” he said. “Have a plan. Every faculty member at Georgia Tech is capable of doing that.”

The second thing is to sincerely care about your students.

“That part, you can’t fake. People are extraordinarily skilled at detecting insincerity,” he said. “It’s not hard [to care] because they are really good kids and most are working really hard. I think about it in terms of my own kids and grandkids. How would I want them to be treated?”

Schuster, who affectionately refers to students under the age of 45 (the age of his oldest son) as ‘kids,’ has spent years working with students as a professor and administrator.

For 20 years, Schuster was a faculty member at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and served as head of the Department of Chemistry there. He came to Georgia Tech in 1994 and served as dean of the College of Sciences and professor of chemistry and biochemistry until 2006, when he was named provost and executive vice president. He served as interim president of Georgia Tech between G. Wayne Clough and G.P. “Bud” Peterson.

photo - Gary Schuster standing in his office

CLASSROOM STRATEGIES

Schuster teaches Organic Chemistry (CHEM 2311), a required course for a lot of Tech students. He acknowledges that many students come into the course not particularly interested in the subject.

“I rate my lectures by the quality of the metaphors I create,” he said. “A good metaphor can help to explain a difficult concept and can also illustrate why organic chemistry is an important subject.”

Schuster went on to add that it is very important for faculty to share their passion for their subject.

“Students are trying to discover their passions. Sharing yours can help to inspire students and guide them as they decide their own paths.”

Schuster said he works hard to engage the students. He tries to keep them alert through class participation and the use of clickers to answer quiz questions.

“They seem to dislike the clickers, but it compels them to come to class and it gives me quick feedback, letting me know if they understood what I just presented. The clickers also help convert students from passive to active participants in the learning process.”

DNA

In his classroom, Schuster has three rules to help keep the students focused.

The first rule is no computer or cellphone use. “It seems impossible for some to avoid checking email or social media when that laptop is open in front of them, and that inevitably distracts those seated nearby,” he said. Students who want to take notes on their laptop must sit in the front row, also called “computer row.”

The second rule is no eating – because it too can annoy other students.

Schuster’s final rule is no snoring. “You can sleep, but you cannot snore. Snoring also annoys others,” he joked. 

Advice for New Faculty

Schuster’s advice is straightforward: Be prepared and be concerned about your students.

“At Georgia Tech and most research universities, faculty members are expected to be successful independent scholars,” he said. “A beginning faculty member’s research efforts must succeed before the tenure clock runs out. But that doesn’t mean that their other responsibilities can be ignored.”

photo - Mike Zott

Mike Zott, a second-year chemistry major, took Gary Schuster’s class during the fall semester of his freshman year.

“My absolute favorite part of Professor Schuster’s class was his command of the material, which allowed a teaching style that had a certain panache or swagger, but without any of the self-importance that those words might connote,” Zott said. “This gives him great authority in the classroom, which makes you feel confident that you are learning something important.”

Zott, who loves teaching himself directly from textbooks, concedes, “There really is no replacement for the insights of an excellent teacher. I think [Professor Schuster] puts it best, in fact. He says, ‘Teaching yourself should be looked at as ‘having laid a foundation,’ but ‘It [is] much more pleasant to live in a house than in a foundation.’ The teacher builds the house, and the excellent teacher builds a mansion.” 

Zott said that because of the internet, one can ask just about any question and find hundreds or even thousands of people who already know the answer and how to solve the problem. He believes this eliminates the need to memorize things that can be looked up easily.

“However, [Schuster’s] teaching shows the power of mastery which is that not only can you solve problems quickly and without aid, but primarily that mastery instills confidence in those around you,” Zott said. “This is a critical skill in science when you have to explain the value of your research to those outside your specialty or perhaps even outside of your field.”

Zott said he has greatly enjoyed discussing more than organic chemistry with Schuster. He has recommended several books for reading and discussion with Zott, who plans to graduate in three years (or less), against Schuster’s advice.

“Something that he tries to impart to me is to maintain openness in my choice of specialty due to the rapid narrowing of my focus toward computational chemistry. The books he has recommended were chosen to aid this, and I try to embrace this advice constantly,” he said. “In fact, I was not planning on taking biochemistry this semester, but, because of my trust in his advice, I added the class to my schedule. I’m still not won over on his advice to take four years in undergrad, however,” he said.

“In the Classroom” is a series showcasing some of Georgia Tech’s award-winning teachers, delving into what they teach, how they do it, and what motivates them.

More In the Classroom Stories - click here

Writer: Victor Rogers
Photographer: Fitrah Hamid
Art Director: Melanie Goux