Striving for depth

Andreas Langner invites his students on safari in search of elephants in the chemistry laboratory. Not real elephants, of course, rather the proverbial kind whose existence must be pieced together like a puzzle. One student spots a trunk, the other a tail, yet another a tusk and together the answer that is the elephant emerges from the bush into plain view. Sometimes.

"The kind of students I want to attract to my group are the ones who want to learn how to tackle a problem that may not have an answer—or may have an answer that is a surprise," Langner says. "Their perspective may not be the right one, but by combining their efforts in space or time, they see something there that cannot be perceived by one research effort alone."

Langner's holistic approach to chemistry—and life—encourages students to persevere when frustrated and uncomfortable.

He describes himself "first and foremost" as a teacher who also has a "fair amount of research activity." He uses formal research to give his students practice conducting scientific experiments and an unfettered pursuit of the proverbial elephant. In much the same way, his laboratory assignments—such as for this term's chemical kinetics lab and polymer characterization lab—stimulate students' creativity. Langner designs experiments that will not necessarily work if followed precisely. Doing so, he says, teaches his students flexibility and how to adjust their protocols as needed.

An interest in learning styles helps Langner draw upon his students' strengths.

Langner points to apathy and anonymity as a teacher's biggest challenge and the root of retention problems. His students, however, cannot afford to be apathetic. Likewise, the anonymity that can swallow students in large lecture halls is impossible to maintain during the one-on-one interaction in Langner's labs.

"One of the things I excel at is what I call 'I will be present.' I'm going to come prepared and I expect the same. I strive for depth and what I demand from students is depth. I demand sweat equity."

Langner understands the importance of perseverance and pushing oneself forward. He turned down a partial scholarship to study theater at Princeton University for a steadier career path in the sciences. He "got bit by the research bug" at State University of New York at Buffalo where he completed his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in three years. Langner was looking forward to attending graduate school at Stanford University when he was struck by a car in the UB parking lot. He sustained a spinal chord injury that landed him in the Erie County Medical Center for six months and confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life. Without hesitation, Langner transferred his fellowship to UB and began working on a doctorate in chemical engineering.

Langner joined RIT in 1989, turning down offers at Johns Hopkins University, Bucknell University and Benington College. He liked that RIT's placement rate "couldn't be beat" and thought that the co-op experience was an important component of an education. RIT also offered him a chance to stay in western New York, near his wife's family. Nine years ago the couple decided to adopt two children from an orphanage in Vietnam, thinking that siblings would be able to help each other adapt to their new home. The pair of siblings soon grew to a group when the Langners learned four children from the same family needed a home.

Langner's pride in his children carries over to his students. He and colleague Michael Kotlarchyk won a Cottrell Science Award to support undergraduates interested in research. Four students, two each from the physics and chemistry departments, spent two summers studying microemulsions—an important research area for materials processing and a wide variety of consumer products. The grant also enabled two students to work at national research laboratories.

"When I first started teaching I think I had more of a philosophical approach, but now that I've become a father it is a lot more pragmatic," he says. "All you can do is create the opportunity, create the environment."

He adds: "I think what I value in myself is independence and being adaptable and being forward thinking. And I think this spills out to how I work with my students."

Since 1965, RIT's Eisenhart Awards for Outstanding Teaching have honored and celebrated faculty excellence. Up to four awards are given each year to recipients in various RIT programs. Winners are chosen through rigorous peer review of student nominations. This year, four professors will receive the awards during the academic convocation on Friday, May 21.

The Eisenhart family, for whom the awards are named, has a long history with RIT. The late M. Herbert Eisenhart, president and board chairman of Bausch & Lomb, was an RIT trustee for more than 50 years. Richard Eisenhart continues the RIT connection, serving on the board since 1972, as chairman for six years and now as trustee emeritus.

Since 1965, RIT's Eisenhart Awards for Outstanding Teaching have honored and celebrated faculty excellence. Up to four awards are given each year to recipients in various RIT programs. Winners are chosen through rigorous peer review of student nominations. This year, four professors will receive the awards during the academic convocation on Friday, May 21.

The Eisenhart family, for whom the awards are named, has a long history with RIT. The late M. Herbert Eisenhart, president and board chairman of Bausch & Lomb, was an RIT trustee for more than 50 years. Richard Eisenhart continues the RIT connection, serving on the board since 1972, as chairman for six years and now as trustee emeritus.

RIT News & Events, May 13, 2004