Fred Lytle, professor of chemistry, was selected from among 13 nominees in Indiana and is the third Purdue professor to receive the honor in four years.
The award recognizes Lytle's achievements in 28 years of teaching chemistry courses at Purdue, ranging from freshman-level to graduate-level courses. The award also recognizes his achievement in developing a first-of-its-kind software program capable of translating chemical equations and symbols into a standard six-dot Braille code.
"I don't know that I really have a philosophy of teaching," Lytle says. "But I have this capacity to believe that my students can achieve. And they figure out very quickly that I believe in them, and then they turn around and do it."
Lytle says to be a good teacher, you must also have faith in yourself and your ability to help others understand.
"I always wanted to be a teacher," he says. "I used to get mad in grade school when my teacher went on and on. On a couple of occasions, I asked him to be quiet so I could explain the lesson to the kid next to me who was having trouble. I'm still passionate about wanting to help my students."
Jill Gogal, a junior in biological science at Purdue, remembers Lytle's animated classroom delivery.
"I remember him pacing back and forth in front of the class as he attacked us with an arsenal of chemistry knowledge," she says. "He would raise his voice and wave his hands in an effort to signal an incoming barrage of what he thought was particularly interesting material."
Though Lytle sees himself as a teacher who "doesn't do anything special," he says there are lots of roles he can play in the process.
"I try to keep in mind that I have to prepare these students to leave, to a point where they no longer need a teacher," Lytle says. "The most important thing I can do for them is help them learn how to learn and develop faith in themselves."
He compares this role to the task of a parent teaching a child how to ride a bicycle.
"You can't actually teach someone how to ride a bike, because like most learning, it's a lesson that has to be experienced and internalized," he says.
"But what I can do is show them the basic idea, which is to sit on the bicycle seat and keep moving. As a teacher, I can push the bicycle to get it started, and then if I'm really suave, I can run along with my finger underneath to help them keep their balance. My role as a teacher is to steady the bicycle, and very hopefully not have the students see that I'm steadying the bicycle."
In his classroom, Lytle says, he tries to accomplish this balancing act by giving students specific problems to work on, or suggesting different approaches. During class, he often walks around the classroom and ask students questions.
"When a student comes back with an answer, I like to give them real feedback, and say 'That's really a super answer,'" he says. "I don't make it up, because for where they are in their education, it really is a super answer, and I want the class to hear it."
Giving students a chance to hear themselves, and others, contribute in the classroom also is important, he says.
One technique Lytle uses to get students to "hear" themselves is to occasionally have a small group of students present a lecture in class. He randomly selects a group of students and assigns a topic for them to present. He then works with the students outside the classroom to help them prepare their lecture.
This semester, his freshman class already has presented topics on how the elements originated, and treating atomic orbitals as probability density functions.
"These are high-level concepts that the students are able to assimilate, put into their own words, and present to their peers," he says. "I'm always amazed at how much they and the other students learn through this method."
A student's ability to assimilate difficult concepts into their own language is central to learning new material, Lytle says, noting that his role as a teacher is to help students when they run into roadblocks during the process. That was the case two years ago, when he met a blind student at Purdue who was finding it difficult to pursue science studies because there were no Braille symbols to represent many of the reactions or structures.
His first encounter with the situation was in the fall of 1994, when a chemistry graduate student, David Schleppenbach, was preparing course material for the student.
"He was showing someone a copy of a calculus exam and in a tired voice said it would take a month to transcribe the exam into Braille," Lytle says. "In an attempt to help, I volunteered to write a computer program to perform the task automatically."
With no experience with Braille, Lytle began working on his own time to develop a systematic way to convert chemical equations, symbols and formulas into a standard six-dot Braille. The new symbols were combined with current Braille symbols to develop a software program to translate equations into Braille.
The new software is being used to translate course materials for two Purdue students in subjects including chemistry, biology, mathematics and psychology. It also is being used at a number of high schools and colleges nationwide.
"It actually transcribes chemical and mathematical equations much faster than a human could," Lytle says.
His recent work to reach out to visually impaired students illustrates his dedication to all students, says Matthew Burton, a senior in Purdue's School of Science who first met Lytle in a general chemistry class.
"I remember my first impression of Dr. Lytle," Burton wrote in letter to support Lytle's nomination for the award. "He entered the large lecture hall and ran up the aisle to introduce himself to the students. Although 400 students were in the class, he made it a point to speak with everyone. Thereafter, before each lecture, he would have a chat with a different group of students."
Richard Walton, head of Purdue's Department of Chemistry, agrees with Burton, noting that Lytle's efforts to reach out to students have been noted since he joined the Purdue faulty in 1968. In 1979, he was voted the Outstanding Teacher in the School of Science, and in 1985 he received the Amoco Undergraduate Teaching Award, presented each year to the university's most outstanding teacher. Earlier this year, he received Purdue's "Helping Students Learn Award."
Lytle says he came to Purdue because it offered a chance to work with students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to teaching general chemistry, he teaches an advanced-level course on using numeric and electronic strategies to improve the quality of chemical measurements. The course outlines strategies developed throughout the years by Lytle, who is widely recognized in scientific and industrial circles for developing such strategies.
"It's like wringing water out of a cloth -- I teach my students how to wring a signal out of a measurement that others might say had none," he says.
After some thought he adds, "It's also a philosophy I try to pass on to students to teach them how to wring the most out of their education."
Sources: Fred Lytle, (765) 494-5261; home, (765) 743-3224; e-mail, email@example.com
Writer: Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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