A Q&A with 2018 Cherry Award Recipient Dr. Neil K. Garg

July 20, 2018
Excellent teaching at any level has the ability to change lives. Teachers, particularly in higher education, have the ability not only to impact their students’ academic success, but also to influence their future interests and their career choices. Recognizing the importance of great teaching, Robert Foster Cherry, BA ’29, had a deep appreciation for how his life had been changed by significant teachers. His legacy includes an exceptional estate bequest that established the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, which recognizes excellent teachers and also gives Baylor University students the opportunity to benefit from their expertise.

The Cherry Award is the only national teaching award presented by a college or university to an individual for exceptional teaching. The award program is designed to honor great teachers, stimulate discussion in the academy about the value of teaching and encourage departments and institutions to recognize their own great teachers. Along with a record of distinguished scholarship, individuals nominated for the Cherry Award have proven themselves as extraordinary teachers with positive, inspiring and long-lasting effects on students.

Neil K. Garg, PhD, professor of chemistry at UCLA, is the recipient of the 2018 Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching.
Aside from his many accolades, such as the California Professor of the Year Award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2015 and Elias J. Corey Award for Outstanding Original Contribution in Organic Synthesis in 2017, Garg is a popular teacher of undergraduate-level organic chemistry and challenges his students to overcome their pre-fabricated perceptions of the subject. He is known to engage students by showing them the relevance of organic chemistry in everyday life using online tutorials and giving them the opportunity to create organic chemistry music videos, all while teaching them to solve extraordinarily difficult problems. His class is one of the most popular classes at UCLA and was featured in the magazine LA Weeklyas being one of the best in the city of Los Angeles.
Baylor News talked with Garg regarding his outstanding teaching background.

What sparked your passion for teaching chemistry?

“When I was an undergraduate student at NYU, I had the opportunity to serve as a teaching assistant for chemistry as early as my sophomore year. I had so much fun doing it that I continued teaching chemistry throughout the rest of my time in college. Now as a professor at UCLA, much of the excitement for teaching chemistry boils down to the students. They are nothing short of amazing. Seeing them solve tough problems and get excited about organic chemistry has been the key to keeping me motivated to excel as a teacher.”

Many despise organic chemistry, yet you embrace it and have dedicated your research to it. How so? What shapes your perception of organic chemistry?

“My perception is entirely different, for one, I think about how relevant organic chemistry is in our everyday lives. If we look at medicines for example, most of our medicines on the market are made by and only made by the powers of organic chemistry. There’s an incredible number of examples of this. A couple of my other favorites are bulletproof vests, certain types of synthetic materials that make up clothing and dyes that color our clothing. To me, organic chemistry is about puzzles, problem solving, it’s about creativity.”

Is that how your students see organic chemistry?

“I teach a class of 400 students, and I always wonder when I teach this class what are the students’ perceptions of organic chemistry. Data from our course evaluations shows us that only 10 to 15 percent of students taking organic chemistry are excited about it. To me, that’s a sad thing, because when students come in with that type of negative perception overall, it puts up a barrier between them and the ability to learn.

“If we can change the students’ perceptions of these so-called hard sciences, I think that’ll make an incredible impact on the world.”

Your class at UCLA is one of the most popular on campus. In such a large class, how do you keep students engaged? Is there a tool or teaching method you use that you feel could be implemented across academic disciplines, to create interest in any subject?

“We never make the material really easy. I think it is important to make the material really challenging if we are thinking about preparing students for the future. But if we are going to challenge [the students] we had better be sure to support them. I also think it is critical that we always give students opportunities...opportunities to be creative and have fun.”

As part of the Cherry Award, you will be teaching in residence at Baylor next year. What do you hope to bring to the Baylor campus?

“I am incredibly excited to spend a semester at Baylor. I am looking forward to collaborating with faculty on educational initiatives and classroom teaching. Most importantly, I am excited to interact with the students and (hopefully), get them excited about organic chemistry. I will also do my best to bring the Los Angeles weather with me to Waco.”

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