2002 Benjamin Smith Reynolds Award:

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

Tags: CBE E-Day, Engineers' Day, John Wright

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John C. WrightJohn C. Wright
Professor, Chemistry

To say that John Wright teaches chemistry would be an understatement. Rather, for more than two decades, he has explored and refined cooperative, hands-on learning approaches in which he challenges students to work hard and inspires in them intellectual curiosity, respect for scientific inquiry and genuine interest in chemistry.

Often, pre-engineers comprise more than 50 percent of Wright’s freshman honors course, “General and Analytical Chemistry” (Chemistry 110; now 329); about half the students in Chemistry 223 (“Analytical Chemistry”) are chemical engineers. All told, he has taught eight courses of varying difficulty. And to each, Wright brings his belief that students are highly capable, interesting individuals.

“He engages [his students] in genuine dialogue, by listening to them with care and by responding, not by giving answers, but by drawing on his huge fund of ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ and then challenging them to meet very high expectations,” says an associate.

Not only does Wright study how students learn and apply those findings to his courses, he also continually assesses his methods’ success. One extensive study generated the paper, “A novel strategy for assessing the effects of curriculum reform on student competence,” published in the Journal of Chemical Education. Twenty-five faculty outside of chemistry, including nine from engineering, helped assess competence for this major study.

But the hundreds of students who have learned in his classes provide even greater evidence of Wright’s teaching triumphs. “I entered his class shy, quiet, fearful of making mistakes, and lacking the confidence to share my opinions,” says a former chemical engineering student. “I left it willing to make mistakes in public, able to learn from them, and far more confident in the validity and worth of my thoughts and opinions. … It remains a defining moment in my education; one that I wish every student could experience.”

Recipient of the Chancellor’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 1994, Wright joined the UW-Madison faculty in 1972. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Union College, Schenectady, New York, in 1965; and a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in 1970; and completed postdoctoral work at Purdue University.