Science Teaching: Cooks' class

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Cooks in class

Prof. Graham Cooks lectures to his class of seniors.

It was still the first week of classes but Graham Cooks, the Henry Bohn Hass Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, was already in form -- energetically scrawling formulas and terms on the chalkboard.

This intimate meeting of Instrumental Analysis consisted of 23 students, all seniors. At the end of the session, a small group of students presented reports and fielded questions from their peers.

“There’s no point in waiting. You don’t have a lot of time, they don’t have a lot of time, so it’s important to use it well,” Cooks says. “We start in on labs the first week as well.”

He believes that continuing to teach undergraduates is still crucial to his career, even after receiving the Dreyfus Prize for Chemical Sciences in early May. That prize came with a medal, $250,000 and national recognition. His previous honors include being named as a fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, receiving a medal in the Royal Society of Chemistry and an award from the American Chemical Society for his leading work in mass spectrometry and analytical chemistry.

But Cooks believes teaching comes before all of the research accolades.

“My goal has always been to teach well, to challenge the students,” Cooks says. “I believe very strongly that teaching is a profession whereas research is not. … Teaching was a profession I went into before I found research. It’s very important. There is always something interesting that broadens you.”

Since 1975, Cooks has taught thousands of Purdue undergraduates. He recalls semesters in the 1980s when he taught three large 300-seat lecture classes before lunch. Today, he prefers settings where he can work with students one-on-one, face-to-face.

Over the years, Cooks has adapted to more digital times by posting class notes, schedules and assignments online. He also has seen students evolve into better public speakers and writers, to go along with the scientific knowledge.

“The ability of students to stand up and to give a good talk has definitely climbed significantly,” Cooks says. “The ability to write in-depth about a subject persuasively
and with appropriate citations and so on is really good. It’s gone up.”

Cooks says he was heavily influenced by some of his teachers from his years at Port Shepstone High School in Port Shepstone, South Africa. The school was small; his graduating class was 18 students strong. Cooks says he had the same teachers for most of his years there. History teacher Norma Ormond and science teacher Gordon Rochford were big influences on him. Their lessons and teaching styles stuck with Cooks throughout his career.

“I stayed in touch with (Rochford) until he died a few years back,” Cooks says. “I didn’t see him often, maybe once a decade when I would go back to South Africa. He was an old-fashioned British teacher. He wasn’t particularly approachable. I’m the same way. I don’t think you should try to be buddies with your students.”

Cooks is slated to teach another undergraduate course in the spring semester.

A scientist who has gained international acclaim for his study of measurement in chemistry, Cooks exercises patience when measuring the success of his teaching. More than half of his undergraduates will go on to graduate school. “You learn how well you taught 10 years later when you look through the correspondence you’ve had with students,” he says.