A Festschrift in honour of Professor Marcy Hamby Towns

The Journal of Chemical Education has published a Festschrift in honour of one of the great champions of chemistry education and of chemistry educators, Professor Marcy Towns. Just as I was about to board a plane to go to the Biennial Conference in Chemistry Education last month – for which Marcy was General Chair – an alert about the Festschrift being published came in. 30,000 feet higher (and $36 lighter for airplane wifi), I got stuck into reading it. It doesn’t disappoint.

In his warm introduction, Jeff Raker notes some of Marcy’s achievements including the supervision of 25 graduate students and 117 (and counting) publications. For the Festschrift, three themes are identified in Marcy’s work: laboratory learning, physical chemistry, and building scholarly communities. Jeff also cites Marcy’s first article, which provided a flowchart for students in deciding which equation to use in questions on the First Law of Thermodynamics. In that article she wrote:

Many chemistry students are good problem solvers who have algorithmized a variety of different chemistry problems into routine sequential programs (4,5). However… many of these algorithms are inadequate for solving physical chemistry problems. For students to build successful algorithms, they must organize the body of mathematical information that they encounter… [and] learn to translate what he or she reads into mathematical statements and then engage the appropriate algorithm.

Problems associated with the first law of thermodynamics pose difficulty in terms of problem solving for many students of physical chemistry. Words and phrases like “isothermal” (dT = 0), “adiabatic” (dQ = 0), “constant pressure” (dp = 0), and “ideal gas” (U = U(T), H = H(T), PV = nRT) all have mathematical meaning that contributes to unraveling and understanding first law problems. If students cannot recognize the connection between these terms and their inherent mathematical meaning, then they are stymied.

For a first article that is now over 30 years old, it identifies with impressive precision (from modern perspective) some of the core issues relating to learning physical chemistry, and of course Marcy’s recent work with Jon-Marc Rodriguez and Kinsey Bain on learning in physical chemistry – with some exceptional exemplars included in the Festschrift – is influenced by extensive engagement with maths education scholarship as well as their comprehensive reviews in teaching and learning in both thermodynamics and kinetics. It is informative to read again that first paper by Marcy, where even then she was advocating student engagement with an activity rather than rote memorisation, in parallel with more recent work on helping students integrate their maths and chemistry knowledge in moving beyond algorithms in chemical kinetics.

Of course much of my own interaction with Marcy’s scholarship has been in the laboratory education domain. Her work with Stacey Lowery Bretz on characterising laboratory inquiry is among her most highly cited, and initiated a huge interest in thinking about learning processes in the laboratory. Her work with Brittland DeKorver was I think characteristic: methodologically impressive but with clear messages about the practice of laboratory teaching and its shortcomings, all centred on a student perspective. Their duo of articles on general chemistry students’ goals (included in the Festschrift) and upper level students’ goals are undoubtedly among the most influential work on my own research in laboratory education. Marcy also pioneered a rekindled interest in laboratory skills and again her work with Sarah Hensiek on digital badging as a platform to promote assessment of laboratory skills earns a deserved spot in the Festschrift. All of this work in laboratory education influenced my own, and it is a career highlight for me that two of my own papers are included in the volume. I mention this especially as Marcy was Associate Editor on the article led by Naomi Hennah about lab skills in high school, and she was, I am sure, an influential advocate in ensuring that article being awarded Editors’ Choice.

I first met Marcy about 2010/2011. I was wandering around awkwardly at a conference and sat down for lunch. She sat down beside me and just started talking. She was interested in me, what I was working on, what I was getting out of the meeting. It was a simple moment but an amazing example of inclusion and making open a community space. Of course this is Marcy’s superpower, and it is no surprise to see that the third theme in the Festschrift is around collaborations. Marcy is unusual I think in the American context for the extent of her international engagement. The amazing work on visualising chemistry of climate change with Peter Mahaffy is a highlight for me, but the inclusion of the Elmgren et al article with co-authors from Sweden and Australia is a good testament to Marcy’s international influence. This was undoubtedly a feature in Marcy’s receipt of the 2019 RSC Nyholm Prize.

This last article on learning outcomes hints at a theme of Marcy’s work that is not explicit in the Festschrift, but one I think worth mentioning. Marcy is one of those few people – and I can think of only Gwen Lawrie and Tina Overton as other obvious candidates – that no matter what you are interested in in chemistry education, Marcy has written something about it. I remember a few years ago being charged with enthusing my colleagues about MCQs, and came across Marcy’s tour de force on the subject, again with signature pragmatism and usability.

So a sincere “Thank You” to Professor Towns for your scholarship, influence on teaching, and community building. A huge and deserved congratulations on the occasion of your Festschrift (and the birthday it commemorates!). Looking forward to the next article.

With Peter Mahaffy and Marcy Towns
With Peter Mahaffy and Marcy Towns at IUPAC Paris

One thought on “A Festschrift in honour of Professor Marcy Hamby Towns

  1. A heartfelt thank you of gratitude for Michael’s blog post. My gosh, I am so grateful for your friendship. It has been an honor to be in the chemistry education community with you and to experience your leadership. You have been a shining light for all of us in the pandemic, being one of the first to learn how to host a symposium online (that was epic BTW). You set the standard for engagement and careful consideration of so many issues around teaching and learning, especially in the laboratory.

    Thanks again for your kind words – they mean so much. I so regret that the planned 2020 Nyholm tour did not happen. The plan was to have the award given in Edinburgh with you and that would have been a memorable celebration!

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