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2009 Distinguished Teaching Professor: Bruce Ault


Bruce Ault has won several awards for his work at the University of Cincinnati. And now he has won the Distinguished Teaching Professor Award.

Date: 5/21/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, photojournalist

UC ingot   Bruce Ault's prior awards include “Cincinnati Chemist of the Year” from the Cincinnati Section of the American Chemical Society, the Distinguished Research Award from the Sigma Xi Society (Cincinnati Chapter) and the George Barbour Award for Promoting Good Faculty-Student Relations and Faculty Service Award from the University of Cincinnati. Since 1979, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has continuously funded his work. Now UC adds the Distinguished Teaching Professor Award to the list.

In the Company of Students

It is difficult to find Bruce Ault without students. Whenever two or more students are gathered — there’s Bruce Ault. Whether it’s directing the National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, pushing a cart for UC’s Helping Hands to get students moved into the residence halls, creating projects for Women in Science and Engineering’s Research Experiences for Women Undergraduates or helping with some of the many K–12 outreach programs that the Chemistry Department offers, Ault seems to have a hand in it.

Distinguished Teaching Professor: Bruce Ault
Distinguished Teaching Professor: Bruce Ault

The students might not be chemistry majors or even UC students — yet.

“Our whole purpose for being here is the students,” Ault says. “It’s why we’re here; it’s why we exist and it’s why we get to do the fun things we do.”

It is thanks to one wonderful math teacher in California who believed that calculus did not belong in a high-school curriculum that the University of Cincinnati enjoys the benefit of Bruce Ault’s dedication to students’ developing a passion for chemistry — instead of math.

Ault originally planned on majoring in math in college. He had done well in his high-school math courses and had a teacher whom he considered to be “outstanding in most respects.” But she did not feel that calculus belonged in high school. So he arrived at Cal Tech — where everyone took the same set of first-year courses, regardless of major — as a freshman with no background in calculus.

“At Cal Tech there were also no grades freshman year,” Ault says, smiling. “All classes are pass/fail. I did pass, but it became apparent I wasn’t going to be a math major. But what I did have was a wonderful Swiss chemistry teacher.”

And that was Ault’s path to chemistry. “Cal Tech also provided  my first exposure to undergraduate research.”

Ault is passionate about the value of research at the undergraduate level. He refers to an article he has just read in the “Journal of Chemical Education.”

“The author asks ‘Are we actually teaching science?’” Ault says. “In class we teach them the steps of the scientific method that scientists go through: observation, question, hypothesis, prediction, test hypothesis. Then we spend most of our time teaching knowledge. But then the author asks, ‘In what course do we teach the process? The answer is research.”

Ault works here with student Huongtrandiep Phan.
Ault works here with student Huongtrandiep Phan.

Ault says that undergraduate research is a tremendous opportunity and should be required. “As we revamp our curriculum it will be in many cases,” he says. “Research is the opportunity to do science, starting at the little kid level with discovery-based labs.”

Research for many can be a career-determining experience Ault says. “Many kids, myself included, have gone on to graduate school because of undergrad research,” he says. “It helps people make career decisions. It helps people make life decisions.”

To Ault, teaching, conducting research and publishing are therefore intertwined and overlapping.

“We teach the process of science through research and we teach the broader scientific community when we publish,” he says.

One of Ault’s most passionate topics is the Chemistry Department’s Research Experience for Undergraduates. Each summer under Ault’s direction, this program offers students from across the nation an opportunity to come study at the University of Cincinnati. UC’s students are considered in the applicant pool along with all the others. Typically 250 students apply for 10 positions. It is very competitive.

“We get applicants with GPAs of 3.9 to 4.0,” Ault says. “We might not take them. We ask ‘Who will benefit the most from this opportunity?’ The kid with a 4.0 from Yale or Cornell has plenty of opportunity, but the student with a 3.8 from some smaller school with a less-established lab or no opportunity to do research at her home institution has more opportunity to maximize her learning.”

Through the many conversations in the application process, again Ault is building relationships and reaching out to the students.

“One young lady was not accepted for our REU but ended up coming here for grad school,” Ault says.

Ault’s REU work is recognized at many levels. University of Arkansas Associate Professor David Paul was a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry who did not study under Bruce Ault but came to know him through the REU program.

Ault observes Carolina Garcia in lab.
Ault observes Carolina Garcia in lab.

“Bruce is considered to be one of the leaders in the REU programs across the country,” says. He specifically notes that Ault has one of the nation’s most creative and inclusive REU programs.

Undergraduate research also fits with the more active teaching paradigm, Ault points out.

“Like my more senior colleagues, I have had to make the transition from lecture to more active and more interactive classroom activities,” Ault says. “I’ve worked to change from being the ‘sage on the stage’ to being ‘the guide on the side,’ I suppose you could say. I often feel a twinge of guilt because it’s easy. I think, ‘But I’m being paid to teach!’ Then I correct myself. ‘No — I’m being paid for them to learn.’”

Ault's students say they know he wants them to learn.
Ault's students say they know he wants them to learn.

Even before a course evaluation system was established within the Chemistry Department, Ault had been having his students evaluate his teaching for years. In the department’s first year of its system, the departmental average was 4.9 out of a 6.0 scale; Ault’s score at 5.7 was the second highest in the department and tied for highest among those who taught undergraduates. (The undergraduate average score was 4.3.) Some of the students took the time to add comments:

  • “I never left class confused.”
  • “Clearly, Dr. Ault knew what we were thinking and outlined what we were learning until we made the discovery ourselves.”
  • “He made you feel like he wanted you to do well.”

Ault notes that teaching is a much broader activity than often considered. Research brings more attention and funding to a university and is easier to measure. “Imperfectly perhaps,” he adds, “but it is easily quantifiable — we don’t know how to measure teaching as effectively as we would like. What’s more, we don’t know how to measure learning as well as we should. How do you measure what a student has learned?”

At the University of Cincinnati, one easy way is to ask the student if he or she ever studied under Bruce Ault.