BERNARDA GOSPIC/THE VARSITY

First year can be a very scary time, with assignments piling in and midterms approaching — the easygoing days of high school are over. As a life sciences student, core classes are filled with thousands of frosh all competing to get the A+ that they think will get them into med school. Strolling into Earth Sciences for that first organic chem lecture, struggling to find a seat, and dreadfully awaiting the crippling blow of a million pages of homework can be quite demotivating.

Fortunately, if you’re taking organic chemistry, you’ve got Dr. Andy Dicks.

Dicks lays down chemistry principles with a blend of clarity and charisma that makes an otherwise difficult and often esoteric subject bearable. His teaching style is unusual: he often uses hi-fives and other body language to convey difficult concepts.

“Teaching large introductory classes always keeps you on your toes,” says Dicks. “I think a key attribute any educator should possess is the ability to show empathy. Whenever I teach students or otherwise interact with them, I always try and remember what it was like to be in their situation — at school for the first time, perhaps away from home, under pressure.

“I have learned that there are many effective ways to teach, and that it is important to try new things and refresh curricula wherever feasible.”

Making organic chemistry exciting for first years is no easy task, and Dr. Dicks is always enthusiastic about perfecting his teaching strategies.

“Organic chemistry is a relatively easy subject to “sell” ­— if you pick up the Toronto Star, you’ll find several articles each day that directly or indirectly relate to first-year principles,” says Dr. Dicks. “I bring these case studies into the classroom — and involve the class in their learning, do student-driven demonstrations, pose real-world scenarios, tell personal stories etc. I do emphasize however that most of their learning has to take place outside the classroom, and that the lecture is simply a launching pad for them.”

Dicks is also a lab co-ordinator for a number of chemistry courses. One of the most exciting things about his job “is interacting with undergraduates, especially during practical sessions.”

“The main reason I became a teaching faculty member was to try and share my love of chemistry, and that is often best done in a lab environment,” says Dicks.  “It is tremendously fulfilling to see the improvements many students make throughout their degree programs. I also really enjoy talking about new teaching strategies with colleagues.”

Dicks’ research focuses on chemical education; he believes that everyone, not just dedicated chemists, should have a working knowledge of the subject.

“Chemistry as an applied subject is definitely not for everyone, but the public needs a basic understanding of science to make informed choices, especially related to behavior and practices that are environmentally sustainable,” explains Dicks. “Anyone taking university chemistry courses will realize that it is a problem-solving discipline. Chemistry students learn skills — critical thinking, deductive reasoning and many others — that will be key in whatever career they pursue.”

Dicks is mindful of the difficulty of transitioning from high school to university. Given the small amount of time there is for evaluation in half-year courses, new students need to “hit the ground running in September.”

“There is not much time for students to find their feet and become independent learners,” he says. “They have to become effective time-managers and get their hands dirty in the courses they are taking — personally interacting with the people teaching them is a great start! In a nutshell, students must take responsibility for their own learning.”

When he’s not in the lab or at the lecture podium, Dr. Dicks enjoys cheering for his favorite sports teams.

“I am a keen spectator of almost every sport, although cricket and soccer are my favorites,” says Dr. Dicks. “I come from a family that is mad about sport, and a lot of my relaxation time is built around that – running, cycling and hiking. I’m hoping my two sons (who are eight and four years old) show more ability than me at ball games, though!”

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