Chemistry professor David Harpp

Teaching treasure gets his due

BRONWYN CHESTER | Chemistry professor David Harpp has won a 3M Teaching Fellowship, one of the most prestigious prizes for university teaching in the country. He is one of 10 instructors to receive the award this year and the third McGill professor ever to win one of the 139 fellowships granted since the award began in 1986. The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education bestows the award, not only for inspired instruction, but also for demonstrated leadership in improving university teaching in general.

Harpp has come a long way from his first day of teaching at McGill 32 years ago when, before the students arrived, he looked up at the empty lecture hall and said, "What am I doin' here?"

Not that Harpp had any doubts about teaching. He knew he had a gift for it. Already, as a teenager at his high school in the small town of Warrensburg in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, he was known as "professor" by kids who, like him, "wouldn't have known what a professor was if he walked in the room."

It's just that the size of that first McGill class -- 250 students -- was daunting. It wasn't long before he warmed up to the challenge. He soon met with Leo Yaffe, then the chair of the Department of Chemistry, to seek permission for combining two classes, each with 250 students. Already, the Harpp "show and tell" method of teaching large classes had begun to evolve.

Right from the start, Harpp used slides he made himself to help students visualize the three-dimensional look of molecules. Using slides to illustrate a lecture was something Harpp had first seen as a child; his father, a forester, would use them to illustrate his public lectures on plant disease. But the younger Harpp would go one step further: he developed a technique known as "registered lap-dissolve projection," involving 35 mm slides, a control unit and two projectors, in order to animate molecules so that students could see them in motion.

Still, it bothered him to see students' "heads going up and down like birds pecking" as they took their notes while trying to watch the visuals. In 1968 he began giving students a set of class notes so that their full attention could be on the lecture, slides and demonstrations. The notes continue. For first year organic chemistry, for instance, the package of notes measures a good inch-and-a-half thick and contains questions and answers at the end of each chapter and the midterms and exams of the past three years.

Harpp wants his students to enjoy and remember what he teaches them. Not necessarily so that they become chemists, but so that they have a good understanding of organic compounds and the role they play in their everyday lives. Science isn't a dry domain divorced from human experience in Harpp's eyes -- he wants his students to have a sense of the men and women who made the discoveries and the historical conditions in which they worked.

"My task is to tell students what it's possible to know within this year and what it was possible to know 100 years ago," said the 61-year-old. "Now, for instance, with computer models, it's possible to accurately visualize chemical structures. One hundred years ago, it was like being blindfolded and feeling an object, trying to picture it."

In other words, Harpp is a storyteller and he brings his stories to life with a variety of media.

Last week, for instance, Harpp "introduced" Nobel laureate and onetime McGill professor Ernest Rutherford to his class. Accompanying his lecture were slides of Rutherford, his birthplace in New Zealand and a recording of the scholar's voice as he addressed German professors in the 1930s, after receiving an honorary degree. The audience laughed on the recording when Rutherford excused himself for speaking in English -- in those days, German was the language of science, Harpp points out to the class.

"Rutherford did the work that won him the Nobel just a stone's throw from where I was giving the lecture in the Frank Dawson Adams building," notes Harpp back in his office in the Otto Maass building where he has just begun as department chair.

"Professor Harpp will frequently use examples from McGill researchers," says U2 student Karen Pelley who had Harpp last year for introductory organic chemistry. Pelley appreciated Harpp's personal and often amusing approach to his subject. He will also use examples from his own research in organosulphur chemistry where appropriate.

Harpp himself became convinced of this style of lecturing after hearing William Feindel, the former head of the Montreal Neurological Institute, giving a public lecture on the brain. "It was so much like what I wanted to do. He took history and integrated old and new research all to tell a story. The influence of that lecture has lasted 25 years and I've told him so," says Harpp.

One who was similarly influenced by a lecture by Harpp and who went on to become a fellow popularizer of chemistry is Joe Schwarcz. Many readers will know Schwarcz's name from his column in the Sunday Gazette, his phone-in show about chemistry on CJAD or from his recent book, Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal. In a letter of endorsement of Harpp's 3M nomination, Schwarcz wrote of Harpp as being a pleasant surprise to the "industrial scale boredom" he anticipated 30 years ago as a student on his way to organic chemistry class.

"Almost from the lecturer's first words it became obvious that this would be a different experience... This man talked about things that mattered, about plastics, about drugs, about insecticides. And then there were the slides. There were pictures of insects, of petroleum refining, of nylon, of Los Angeles smog... Molecules on the screen moved, bonds rearranged..."

Schwarcz would go on to become a chemistry teacher himself at Vanier College and McGill. In fact, it was thanks to Harpp's invitation in 1980 to Schwarcz and another CEGEP chemist and adjunct professor at McGill, Ariel Fenster, that Harpp's "The World of Chemistry" for adults and "The Magic of Chemistry" show for families evolved.

When an offer came Harpp's way to offer chemistry demonstrations at the UNESCO pavilion at "Man and His World," he was interested but didn't see how he could do it on his own. After he enlisted Schwarcz and Fenster, the trio did the shows that summer and in 1981. In a similar vein, Harpp helped launch "The Chemistry Show" at Expotec in the summer of 1986, which drew close to 400,000 people.

Buoyed by his success at bringing chemistry to a lay audience, Harpp and his two partners developed in 1981 "The World of Chemistry," a three-course program for science and non-science students alike, as well as offering a version in Continuing Education. The course, one of the most popular at McGill, is divided into food, drugs and cosmetics and a sort of grab-bag that holds household chemicals, forensic tools, biotechnology and other goodies.

In addition, the trio give public lectures as well as demonstrations in schools, workplaces and at such venues as Complexe Desjardins.

Yet, for all the thousands of people he has addressed over the years. Harpp comes across as a reserved, contemplative person who, despite all his enthusiasm, laments the continuing lack of scientific literacy in the general population. His own motivation to equip people to understand labels on food and drug containers and to know enough to doubt the advertisers and charlatans, comes with his personality, it seems.

"It's an obvious thing to want to do because you're telling people useful information," says Harpp.

As for being recognized for his teaching, Harpp seems to be happier for the recognition the department and the University will receive thanks to his winning a 3M fellowship than for himself. True, he has won numerous teaching awards, including, in 1982, his most coveted, the Leo Yaffe Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Faculty of Science. Yaffe was a great inspiration to Harpp because he "set a standard of fair play," in the department.

As far as working to promote the improvement of university teaching is concerned, Harpp, believing that people teach according to who they are and according to what they would find interesting as a student, is sceptical about influencing established teachers.

In his entire teaching career, he says, only a handful of colleagues have come to watch him teach and one from biology sat through his entire course, one year, just to know the course she was recommending to her students. Harpp, himself, is a proponent of sitting in other teachers' classes, something he did in his two daughters' classes while they were at university.

Still, he looks forward, with some reservations, to the weekend in November at Montebello where 3M has organized a meeting of this year's Teaching Fellows to foster the exchange of ideas. One suspects, that for all his scepticism -- or is it humility in disguise? -- the force of Harpp's quiet, unassuming, yet compelling manner, will find an audience for his stories.