Laurie Starkey, a professor in the Chemistry Department at Cal Poly Pomona, has received the Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dedicated to ensuring success for her students, Starkey has used technological innovations, as well as her own passion, in order to better convey the subject of chemistry.
Lisa Alex, chair of the Chemistry Department, said that Starkey is focused on teaching the students, rather than her own personal goals, which is why she was nominated for the Provost’s Award.
“She cares that the students learn the material and I think that comes through in her personality and her presentation,” said Alex. “She is a very positive individual. She’s super upbeat and loves organic chemistry and that enthusiasm is infectious.”
However, Starkey didn’t think that she would ever become a professor. Throughout her undergraduate studies at the University of Connecticut and Ph. D studies at UCLA, she enjoyed being a teacher’s assistant, but did not want to spend her time doing research
“I saw these professors and all they did was research,” said Starkey. “I always enjoyed teaching, but that didn’t appeal to me.”
While finishing her studies at UCLA, Starkey saw that the application for a professor opening at CPP asked for the applicant’s philosophy on teaching. She liked that the university was focused on the education of the students, rather than the research of the professors.
Starkey has now been at CPP for 18 years and does not intend to teach anywhere else because she loves the students and atmosphere that the polytechnic university brings.
Starkey believes students enjoy taking her courses because she is able to relate to their experiences as students.
“I remember what it was like to be a student; it’s frustrating,” said Starkey. “I remember what it was like to not understand what a professor was saying. I make myself accessible and I give sample questions and partial credit on exams.”
Alex said that Starkey’s ability to clearly communicate chemistry to students is what keeps them engaged.
“Some people know a lot but can’t communicate it, but she knows a lot and can do that at the same time, and especially to people who this may be the first time that they’ve seen that,” said Alex.
Because of this, she has added real life examples to her lectures in order to relate her lessons back to what the students are interested in.
“Organic chemistry is all around us,” said Starkey. “I use examples of vision and soap. It has ties to the real world. I say ‘Oh, you’re pre-vet, here’s this,’ and ‘Oh, you’re biology, here’s this.’”
Because of her dedication to teaching organic chemistry, Starkey has performed her own research to expand her knowledge of how students learn. After conducting surveys, she realized that textbooks and lab manuals were not enough to prepare students before coming to class.
So Starkey created a YouTube channel, Chemistry Connected. On this channel, she demonstrates upcoming lab experiments for her students, as well as experiments she conducts on her own for fun. It’s not only students in her lectures and labs that can view these demonstrations, but students and professors across the United States.
“I developed online tutorials and they were welcomed by the vast majority,” said Starkey. “The students are hungry for information, and I wanted to create a learning community.”
Jill Walker, a senior double majoring in zoology and English literature and language, said that these online tutorials helped her through the course.
“It was great, particularly because I got all the visual information I would in a lecture, but I was able to take it at my own pace and review concepts I was unsure of before moving on,” said Walker.
Not only has Starkey created a YouTube channel to enhance students’ learning experiences, but she has also penned her own textbook, because she was unsatisfied with others she had used. Unlike other textbooks, her book includes built-in review of previous courses and many practice problems and explained solutions.
“There was never a good book for [organic chemistry],” said Starkey. “When I developed this book, I made it as a stepping stone to the next level. I didn’t assume the students remembered everything from previous courses.”
Starkey has committed her career to educating students and preparing them for their future careers.
“It’s the highest honor you can receive,” said Starkey.
Walker could not imagine anyone else receiving the award.
“Her commitment to teaching is above and beyond,” said Walker. “She is not only a wonderful lecturer, but is dedicated to finding multiple ways to engage her students, whether via technology or via helping those who come to her office hours.”
Starkey began her career here at CPP, and intends to finish it here as well. She couldn’t imagine teaching anywhere else.
“Cal Poly students are so open and honest,” said Starkey. “You build relationships and you get to see stories and backgrounds. You get to know diversity.”