Faculty Experiences - Laurence Lavelle

Laurence Lavelle - photo 1Laurence Lavelle - photo 2


Chemistry and Biochemistry

Interview Topics:

What matters most to you in your teaching?

How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?

How have your students responded to your use of technology?

What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?

How could the university better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?


Create community
Review materials
Getting students comfortable with technology
Different learning styles


Virtual office hours
Visualization tools
Science learning center



Creating a Comfortable Chemistry Classroom

We're not an online learning institution, we're a physical institution, and that means that students should be exposed to quality lecture content when they come here--that's the first priority in my teaching. In addition, they should have discussion sections and office hours. But the most important thing is that students get quality lectures and, even though our classes are large, the feeling that they are part of a class where they can communicate with myself or the TA's, be it face-to-face or through technology.

I teach large first-year courses, so when the students come to class they are often very apprehensive. I have to provide a secure environment where students feel comfortable communicating with each other as well as with the teaching assistants and myself. They do have to work hard and it's a challenging course, but it's not a process of trying to trick them, and I have to convey that.

The technology I use is synergistic in that it allows for students to ask questions when they have them and receive a personalized response. For example, using Virtual Office Hours (VOH), a student can ask a question and generally that question is answered in about a day. Anytime a student is doing a problem and they get stuck, they can ask that question and it's answered very shortly. When it comes closer to the midterms and the finals we actually manage the VOH on a twelve-hour basis every day, including Sundays and holidays, so that students are always answered. In all my classes combined the students post about a thousand questions a year that are answered on VOH.

I also create podcasts and webcasts for the two major classes that I teach. Students can go back and review the audio and visuals. Pending some successful funding applications, that will be a continuing feature in my courses. The students really thought the webcasts were great, but they have a few drawbacks. It is different being in a classroom with someone physically present than seeing it online. I certainly wouldn't want students to think they should bypass going to lectures or office hours or discussion sections, because learning is a very interactive process.

I also use the science learning center on the fourth floor of Young Hall where students use ChemDraw and Chem3D. These are industry-standard drawing packages that model molecules and can help explain their properties. Many of my students have a hard time visualizing the structure of molecules. When they have difficulty in understanding or visualizing the structure and shapes of molecules, they can use ChemDraw and Chem3D which allows them to interact real-time with a molecule. Simple manipulations such as rotation really help them visualize a molecular structure, plus they enjoy it.

The one thing I try not to do is use technology for testing. They have a computer assignment, but it's not like a quiz, midterm, or final. The TA's are helping them and it's meant to be a pleasure, something to aid them, as opposed to a test, where they might feel psychologically closed off. It would be very easy to adopt online testing, but that's not the purpose of these courses. We have no multiple choice questions, because the courses are about concepts and problem-solving.

I have a few new goals for using technology in teaching. Currently, when we use ChemDraw and Chem3D they have one assignment. What I'd like to do is develop a series of assignments to utilize the software in several sections of the class. The software has a lot more potential. Our science learning center is a multi-million dollar resource, but we've got to develop the educational materials to utilize it fully.

Another thing I'd like to do is edit my existing webcasts into modules that students could access any quarter. If they want to see a 15-minute introduction to what I'm covering in that particular class, and some examples, they could click on a link and view the video. The webcasts would be broken down into modular online resources. Given the success of the webcasting, and the large amount of overhead and resources that go into producing them, I think this would be a very cost-effective project. Making a webcast initially requires a whole crew and is very labor intensive. But once that quarter is done, you have 30 hours of what students consider to be very good lectures. It makes sense to use them again in some way. Very recently a former TA came to me and said she would like to be involved in producing a DVD of my content, so maybe we will do that too.

Whatever technology I adopt has to be suitable for the scale at which I'm working, and that scale is the largest at UCLA. My lectures have between 300-400 students, and I teach 2-3 per quarter. There's a lot of organization that's involved in running those classes. The worst thing you can have is disorganization. The TA's get frustrated, the students get frustrated. But when it's well planned, and the technology is appropriate, I can enjoy the process and the TA's can enjoy the process.

I've been impressed wtih the Office of Instructional Development (OID). It's only in the last few years I've realized the potential that OID has. In addition to being responsible for overhead projectors and audio-visual in general in the classroom, it's OID that makes my podcasts and webcasts happen. I just submitted two grant applications to OID. Until recently it was not apparent to me that OID helped people like me adopt technology. I've been doing it simply because I've wanted to. So I'm hoping that my projects will be funded, at least partially. If I'm teaching the volume of students I'm teaching, and supervising all the teaching assistants, then it's difficult to work on these instructional projects without financial support.

Everyone has a different learning pace and style. Some students don't like to interact with computers. Others love it. The important thing is that now they have a choice to use these other resources. Students can be sitting in large classes unwilling and uncomfortable to ask questions. When they realize it's not such a big deal, they get comfortable with asking questions and learning answers. I hope that UCLA continues to promote technology in and outside the classroom, because students really enjoy it, and they actually expect it. They're used to using computers from a very young age, and that's their mode of interaction. We instructors need to be part of that process.

Oral interview, April 2008