Kyle Schnitzenbaumer is a scientist at heart. His research involves nanocrystals—tiny chunks of crystal a thousand times thinner than human hair. It’s a wide-ranging field that has applications ranging from solar panels to high-resolution televisions.
“Just by making the crystal a different size, you can give it a kind of chemical signature or a spectral thumbprint,” he says. “We can change the ‘barcode’ of the material simply by changing its size.”
His research focuses on characterizing how these materials interact with light based on their size, shape and composition.
And he tackles his teaching with the same methodology that he does physical chemistry—applying the scientific method to the classroom.
At the University of Colorado, where he earned his Ph.D., Schnitzenbaumer completed a Certificate in College Teaching that exposed him to taking a research-based approach to what happens in the classroom.
“I’m interested in how people learn,” he says. “There is a scholarship of teaching and learning, taking a scholarly approach to different pedagogical techniques and how effective they are. What sorts of modifications can we make in a classroom to help people learn chemistry more effectively?”
He’s taken the research and incorporated new ideas into his classroom—strategies like using an app to poll students during class to find what conclusions they draw from a set of data, or discussing subjects with the students before teaching them in order to get an idea of what preconceived notions they may have about the topic. Sometimes he’ll stop a lecture to give a problem for students to answer anonymously on their phones, just to see if they’re grasping the material.
“I use research literature that’s out there to do some of these things with the students,” he says. “It’s not just because I think they’re good ideas, it’s that there’s a lot of evidence that these are effective ways students learn science.”