The University Record, April 18, 1994

Coppola: Go out and tell somebody about the dog

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

Brian P. Coppola, lecturer in chemistry and winner of the 1994 Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching, urged an audience of several hundred enthusiastic undergraduates in Rackham Auditorium last Wednesday evening to go out and tell somebody about the dog.

The image of a dog, hidden in a black-and-white picture that looked something like a Rorshach inkblot test, was the symbol of Coppola’s “last” lecture. In addition to a $l,000 gift, recipients of the annual Golden Apple Award are asked to present the lecture they would give if it were the last one of their career.

Coppola admitted he was surprised that students selected him for the award, since he teaches organic chemistry, where people line up to take the class because they have to. “What the heck is it about chemistry, anyway?” he asked. “Is it a marketing problem?”

In remarks directed as much to faculty as to students, Coppola cited disintegrated teaching methods as one factor responsible for much of chemistry’s bad reputation. “Teachers must always remember what it’s like not to be able to see the larger picture,” Coppola said.

If teachers spend all their time teaching discrete facts, Coppola warned, students may never learn to integrate knowledge across disciplines and find connections between chemistry and other fields.

“Or to paraphrase Antoine Lavoisier [an 18th-century French chemist], ‘You can never get a properly developed meaning of tree if all you do is study oaks,’” Coppola said.

Coppola also blamed an I-didn’t-learn-it-because-you-didn’t-teach-it attitude, held by many students, that holds the teacher completely responsible for learning. “My role is to create an environment that facilitates learning,” Coppola said, “but I can’t teach you anything. You must learn it.”

Viewing teaching as the opposite of learning is a false dichotomy, according to Coppola. “Teaching is an implicit part of learning,” he said. “I want learners who also consider the need to express or teach what they have learned.”

“Whenever you learn new and difficult information, it’s important to be convinced there’s a bigger picture there to see,” he said, as the image of Coppola’s hidden dog flashed on the screen. “Keep grouping and regrouping the little pieces of information until you see the role each plays in assembly of the big picture. And always remember that seeing the dog is a metaphor for persistence.”

The only U-M award for outstanding teaching that is given solely by students, the Golden Apple is administered by a student committee of representatives from several campus honorary and service organizations. The award is sponsored by Hillel Foundation and Apple Computer and co-sponsored by more than 25 U-M academic and administrative units.