A successful chemical bond creates a connection between two atoms. For Illinois State Professor of Organic Chemistry Dr. Shawn Hitchcock, a successful classroom and laboratory begin with forging the bonds of community.
“It’s an ideal—that kind of engagement with the materials where people feel comfortable enough to equally participate,” said Hitchcock. “I work with the knowledge that I can always do better to make that happen for every student.”
The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) recently honored Hitchcock’s approach with the Dr. Henry C. McBay Outstanding Teacher Award. The prestigious, national award annually recognizes one educator who demonstrates outstanding contributions to the education and mentoring of young scientists and engineers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).
“There was a time, not so long ago, when many of the Black Ph.D. chemists making an impact in the nation could trace their academic training in organic chemistry back to Henry McBay,” Hitchcock said of the renowned chemist and educator. “I am deeply honored for NOBCChE to mention me in the same light as Dr. McBay.”
The accolade is well deserved.
“Dr. Hitchcock has been recognized as an enthusiastic and highly effective teacher by both his students and his colleagues at Illinois State,” said Associate Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Dr. Craig C. McLauchlan. “His passion for chemistry is obvious and contagious. He truly wants all students to see the joy and wonder that make chemistry so enjoyable to him.”
Sciences came naturally to Hitchcock, who knew by sixth grade that he wanted to teach the subject. Those who inspired him in his early days in Detroit, Michigan, include a middle school natural science teacher, a high school chemistry teacher, and Dr. Kim Albizati at Wayne State University.
“Dr. Albizati was a guest lecturer in my organic chemistry class, and he blew me away. He blew all of us away. A lecture hall of 300 students,” said Hitchcock, who went on to join Albizati’s undergraduate research project working with organic syntheses. “I came from a school that had very few resources, so I had no idea how to do research. I just knew I wanted to work with him.”
A new way to engage with organic chemistry and fellow chemists opened to Hitchcock. “Shawn was an absolutely terrific student, very serious and very highly motivated,” said Albizati, now with the University of California at San Diego. “We published a few papers on organic synthesis, fairly rare for an undergraduate to accomplish this.”
Hitchcock earned a doctorate from the University of California-Davis and conducted post-doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He joined the Illinois State faculty in 1998. Looking back at his early ISU days, Hitchcock castigates himself for relying on excelling students to drive conversations. “I realized these folks were going to be engaged no matter what I did,” he said.
Reframing his approach, Hitchcock centered the community of students as the key to collective problem-solving and exploration. Invited to the dry erase board early in the semester, students take the lead in questioning and analyzing the material.
“It’s more than demonstrating what can be done,” Hitchcock said. “It’s about helping them understand how the material interconnects and approaching new topics with the understanding that they can make decisions about its validity.”
His journey to build engagement and community in the classroom has evolved into a constant act of amelioration. “I am critical of myself, always looking for ways I could have done a better job of sharing information and material or making myself available outside of the classroom,” Hitchcock said.
“Fostering a sense of community in the classroom creates the supportive and encouraging environment students need to say to themselves, ‘This is not as complicated as I thought it was.
This is not impossible.’”
Hitchcock’s approach translates from the classroom to the laboratory. Throughout his tenure, he has developed systemic changes in undergraduate lab courses that infuse mentoring and publishing possibilities. His laboratory has been supported by the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund and the National Science Foundation. More than 60 students have participated in undergraduate research, and 19 have earned masters’ degrees in chemistry.
The work has led to students contributing in many of his nearly 70 publications in scholarly journals such as Synthesis, Tetrahedron, Tetrahedron Letters, Tetrahedron: Asymmetry, Applied Organometallic Chemistry, the Journal of Heterocyclic Chemistry, the Journal of Organic Chemistry, and Acta Crystallographica.
Hitchcock’s work and student connections have been recognized by ISU’s College of Arts and Sciences, which awarded him the Outstanding College Teaching Award, and the Neuleib Award for Outstanding Scholarship. He also won the Dr. Marian Wilson Comer Outstanding Service and Leadership Award from the STEM Alliance, which is an international initiative. He now joins the ranks of those honored nationally with the McBay award.
“My first year in college, I was not the guy you were going to see raising his hand and saying, ‘I know the answer,’” Hitchcock said. “But you can bet I wanted to learn. My mentors sparked my interest and cultivated that. Without my mentors, I certainly would not be here right now.”
Their influence continues as Hitchcock now leads others with his teaching and by example. “He brings such a passion and enthusiasm into the classroom that it ignites a flame in his students to do their best,” said Dr. George Nora, M.S. ’01, a former student of Hitchcock. “He is an example of an outstanding professor that I try to follow,” said Nora, an associate professor of chemistry at Northern State University in South Dakota.
Just as Hitchcock found inspiration in his teachers, his students are taking to the classrooms and preparing the next generation of scientists and health care workers, and in the process extending Hitchcock’s legacy.