Winter 1999

The Chemistry of Teaching

Dr. Erach Talaty is a favorite with his students, who give him high marks for making learning enjoyable and credit him with a great deal of energy and passion for his work.

"There were a lot fewer buildings, for one thing," says Professor Erach Talaty, reflecting on the Wichita State University campus as it was when he first arrived 30 years ago. He recalls a younger WSU, one with a chemistry department just beginning to grow. Talaty would play a major role in the development of that department over the coming years.

The irony of his reminiscence is that, while he can talk about a past with a smaller campus and program, he is sitting in a tiny interim office in McKinley Hall, not much more than a converted janitor's closet. Books pack the shelves where a visitor might have expected to find cleaning supplies; the cluttered office holds several chairs, but that seating is augmented with a few crates, stools and buckets, insuring a place for his many student visitors to sit. Nearly every available surface is the resting place of a stack of papers, organized in a way that would probably confound anyone other than the office's resident. Talaty himself appears neat and polished, and very approachable.

"He has such a good time teaching, being with the students. It's impossible not to enjoy it with him."

Talaty's real office is one of the renovation projects under way in McKinley Hall. Like most of the science faculty with McKinley offices, his professional life is temporarily scattered around the building's usable spaces while he waits for what he smiles and calls "my final resting place" to be made ready for him. He already knows he'll have to move to another temporary office before he can settle into his permanent digs. But he takes the inconvenience gracefully.

Talaty has always been one of the WSU student body's favorite teachers. This year that unofficial title was confirmed with several prestigious teaching awards. Last spring he was honored with WSU 's Leadership in the Advancement of Teaching Award, which served as an appetizer. This fall he was named the Kansas Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support for Education. The award recognizes extraordinary dedication to teaching, a strong commitment to students and innovative teaching methods.

Talaty's students aren't surprised by the honor. His student evaluations have always been extremely high. Jennifer Heinicki, a former student, says, "He has such a good time teaching, being there with the students. It was impossible not to enjoy it with him."

Talaty's secret? "First, take an interest in the students," he says. "When I walk into a classroom, I don't see a collection of faces and Social Security numbers. I find out what they like and what they want to do." He believes this personal connection is a part of what helps his students relate to him and his subject. He is also noted for his extra effort outside the classroom, where he gladly spends countless hours answering students' questions. "I don't mind providing help if that will make the difference between success and exhilaration on the one hand and dejection and discouragement on the other," he says.

One key to his success is that he conveys how simple chemistry can be by relating it to everyday functions. Eating and digesting foods, taking medicines, wearing clothes — those all involve chemistry, he explains. "Chemistry is all around us."

Talaty's sense of the real-life application of chemistry is more than a teaching technique; it's based on experience outside the academic world. He finished his second doctorate at Ohio State University in 1957, but didn't begin teaching at WSU until 1969. The 12 years in between are, he says, "a long story," one he gladly shares, settling into his chair like a veteran storyteller.

Although he always wanted to teach, he wasn't able to right away because he was not yet an American citizen. Vagaries of American immigration laws first led him to a research position with Pittsburgh Plate Glass, a company that was willing to help him work through his immigration problems. At first it looked as if he would work for ppg for a few years at a plant in Canada. But at the last minute Congress changed the immigration laws, which allowed him to stay in the U.S. — and avoid a couple of cold winters up north.

After his stint with ppg, Talaty worked for several other companies, but was frustrated with restrictions on his ability to publish his research on his own. He left the corporate sector to do postdoctoral research with, among others, Dr. Robert Woodward , a Nobel-bound chemist. Finally able to publish his own work and build up his curriculum vitae, Talaty made his way into the academic marketplace.

His first teaching position was at the University of South Dakota, but he didn't stay long. He left for another research position with noted chemist Dr. Glen Russel at Iowa State. From there he landed a teaching position at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, where he stayed until he accepted the job he would settle in to, at Wichita State.

Since his arrival, he has done a lot more than teach. He continues to publish his research, having published roughly 75 articles so far. He plays an important role in ongoing efforts to improve WSU's doctoral program in chemistry; he continues to do his own research, with graduate student assistants, and has written many grants and proposals that have brought crucial equipment to the program.

Kerry Grosch, a former student and mother of three, says, "I hope he teaches forever. I want him to be teaching when my daughters are in college."


The Chemistry of Teaching

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