Professors Loomis and Daschbach deliver Last Lecture on their learning philosophy
Chemistry professors Richard Loomis and Megan Daschbach delivered this semester’s Last Lecture, a semesterly series where professors give a lecture as if it is their last one ever. Their lecture was titled, “Learning, One Brick at a Time” and was sponsored by the Congress of the South 40 (CS40) in Risa Commons on Wednesday, Nov. 29.
About 40 students, all studying STEM, attended the presentation, which offered advice on the process of learning. After the lecture, many students voiced their appreciation for the professors’ sense of humor and passion for teaching in a Q&A session.
The professors began the lecture by explaining their innovative “brick, wall, house” style of learning that they implement in their courses.
In this metaphor, “bricks,” correspond with the most fundamental concepts of an academic subject. “Walls” are combinations of those fundamental ideas, requiring students to apply and analyze the bricks. Finally, the “house” represents complex concepts that may be initially unfamiliar to students, but can be broken down using the “bricks” and “walls.”
While the philosophy was described in the context of schoolwork, the professors made it clear that it can apply to more than just academics.
“You are all going to go forth and do really important, meaningful, and impactful things outside of academics,” Daschbach said. “Putting the bricks together while in some high pressure situations is a skill that we want to cultivate in you.”
Loomis added that the philosophy offers a simple way to plan out one’s professional path.
“Starting a career, whether it’s in science or another profession, you do it one brick at a time,” said Loomis. “Big things are built one brick at a time. Victories are achieved one choice at a time. A life well-lived is chosen one day at a time.”
The professors then explained how their educational backgrounds prior to coming to WashU led to their current research interests, as well as why they chose to teach chemistry at the collegiate level. Both professors have taught General Chemistry (Chem 111), a large lecture class commonly taken by first-year students.
“To me, it’s equally as rewarding to teach as it is to research,” said Loomis. “Balancing those things is what’s important to me.”
One of Loomis’s former students, sophomore Kyle Chen, said that he came to the lecture because Chem 111 was his favorite class at WashU.
“It’s so different from the chemistry classes that I took in high school,” said Chen. “I found the concepts so much more interesting.”
First-year Iniya Swaminathan described the lecture as “heartwarming” and “inspiring,” saying that she appreciated how the professors added a personal touch with pictures of their elaborate Halloween costumes in their presentation.
Professor Daschbach also offered an angle on finding gratitude while managing a busy college schedule.
“It can from time to time be hard to get perspective and realize how fortunate we are to be this stressed,” said Daschbach. “We get to show up every day, we get to be creative, we get to be challenged.”
The professors emphasized cooperation with others to support one’s learning in challenging situations. They explained how beneficial group work can be by referencing Peer-Led Team Learning (PLTL), a 2-hour weekly session where students answer “house” level practice problems with each other’s support.
“It’s all about supporting each other and being vulnerable in those spaces,” said Daschbach. “For example, I’m going to throw out an idea, and I don’t know if it’s going to work or not, but I’m brave enough to say it. Then you piece it together, and then the bricks come together to the walls to the houses.”
Refah Reza is a first-year student who knows Professor Daschbach through PLTL, which Daschbach oversees. Reza said that she liked Daschbach because of how helpful she is.
“Coming in, people told me to take Chem 111 because she’s such a good teacher and makes it less intimidating,” said Reza.
Both professors recognized that many students come into Chem 111 hesitant, due to its challenging reputation, but they explained how collaboration can make it manageable.
“[Each person has] different talents and different skill sets, and when you can learn as a group, you’re better off than as individuals,” said Loomis.
The event was organized by sophomore Arthur Mao, the CS40’s Scholastic Committee Chair, who explained the purpose of the Last Lecture series.
“The idea of the Last Lecture series is that professors give a lecture like it’s the last one they will ever give, and I chose Loomis and Daschbach because I thought that they would have interesting and meaningful advice for students,” said Mao.
In an interview after the event, Loomis offered a final thought from his experiences with advising students majoring in Chemistry.
“I don’t want any of the students [at WashU] to say that they weren’t pushed and didn’t reach their potential,” he said. “I don’t mean pushed like stressed out, but let’s get the most out of everybody.”
He emphasized that the concept of learning “one brick at a time” will stay with students even after their time at WashU.
“Learning how to learn, that’s a skill set you’ll use forever.”