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Enthusiasm, Innovation, Communication Net Metcalf Award for Binyomin Abrams

A chemist stresses the importance of communicating science

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With his beard and black coat and hat, Binyomin Abrams could be confused for a rabbi, and he is, in fact, studying for rabbinic ordination. But Abrams is also a man of science—a College of Arts & Sciences senior lecturer in chemistry—and his enthusiasm for his work is as unusual as his appearance. (Even the mundane ritual of office hours excites him, as he compares it to having random game-show-type questions fired at him, “like Jeopardy! but without the prize money.”)

For those who think “religious scientist” is an oxymoron, Abrams says faith and teaching science both require more than a sermon or lecture; they require active participation, and his teaching innovations along those lines have earned one of this year’s Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching. Among other achievements, he teamed with the CAS Writing Program to help establish the Chemistry Writing Program, which is built into courses for chemistry majors and students in the seven-year Liberal Arts/Medical Education Program.

“We’re trying to get away from the jargon and the code words,” says Abrams. “I don’t know who tells them that bigger words are better words—‘utilize’ and ‘proximal.’ You mean ‘close’ and ‘use,’ right?…The entire culmination of all of the doing of science is to communicate it.…If you’re doing science in a vacuum, what good is it?”

Abrams believes that crafting their writing forces students to think more deeply about their data, to pick and choose which facts are important, and thereby learn better chemistry in addition to better communication. “In every field, you need to be an expert in communication,” he says. “You need to be able to get across your point. You need to be able to make a strong argument.”

Students who nominated Abrams for the Metcalf Award had no trouble making a strong argument. “Ability to explain and hold interest is phenomenal,” raved one student quoted for Abrams’s Metcalf nomination. Other quotes included: “I feel like I learned chemistry in a way that I hope to retain” and “super passionate, animated, and engaging. He made class fun!”

“Dr. Abrams’ pursuit of pedagogical innovation has been tireless,” his Metcalf citation reads. It cites the writing program, tutorials to help first-year students with difficult classwork, and a “boot camp” for teaching future instructors, all of which are producing “a remarkable fluency and abiding passion for scientific exploration.”

A BU faculty member for seven years, Abrams assumed that his relative youth (he’s 34) ruled him out for one of the University’s highest teaching awards. “It’s very flattering and also very overwhelming,” he says.

Holder of a PhD from New York University, Abrams says a very particular hurdle in chemistry instruction lies behind his innovations: while the naked eye easily glimpses everyday chemical actions, from bubbles forming to water boiling, picturing such things on the microscopic level—essential for students in this science—is difficult.

When students do the hard work of trying to model that microscopic world “instead of this passive ‘I’m going to write down equations,’” the learning is transformative, he says. “That’s what’s so awesome about chemistry, because we get to develop a picture of the microscopic world, and from that picture make predictions about how really cool stuff is going to behave.”

As an instructor, “I can preach until I’m blue in the face,” Abrams says. “But experiential knowledge and personal effort are the only way to make meaningful connections.…You can’t learn passively.”

The Metcalf Cup and Prize and the Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement, are funded by a gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observation.

This year’s other Metcalf Award winner is Pamela Templer, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of biology. The 2015 Metcalf Cup and Prize winner is Janice Furlong, a School of Social Work clinical associate professor of clinical practice and human behavior.

More information about Commencement can be found here.

Bill Politis can be reached at bpolitis@bu.edu.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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