Ommidala Pattawong: Chemistry is the ultimate science
For Ommidala Pattawong, chemistry isn't just a science. It's the science.
By the time she wraps up an academic term at Linn-Benton Community College, most of her students think so, too.
"I think chemistry is the central science. Everything is based on the atom," said Pattawong, who started at LBCC in fall 2018. "Other (sciences) are cool, too, but I like how it leads to other disciplines really well."
Growing up in Thailand, the child of a farming family, Pattawong credits her mother with encouraging higher education as a way to change destinies. "Work hard, study hard," her mother told her.
She had an intense interest in the world around her and decided to study science. She especially loved chemistry because of the way the interactions at the molecular level lead to a greater understanding of the larger world.
While studying for her doctorate in chemistry at Oregon State University, Pattawong had become a teaching assistant for a chemistry class. That sparked a desire to go into education.
She taught at a university for three years after wrapping up her Ph.D program until budget cuts there forced a change of scenery. She was delighted to find a place at LBCC because of its great reputation.
"There's a strong commitment to student success and student learning," she said. "It fit with my passion."
Pattawong teaches chemistry to non-majors. In the classroom, her goal is to change the dread of chemistry into appreciation and respect, and to teach students they are capable of mastering the subject.
"I take that challenge, that people have fear, and I like to make it fun. So at the end, when they finish my course, they feel like, 'Chemistry is around me. I cannot live without knowing chemistry. It's every product. It's a fundamental science.'"
For Pattawong, lecture demonstrations are the best part of teaching. She particularly loves leading a lab in which students are asked to calculate the combustion reaction of ethanol. They can calculate in numbers how much energy one milliliter of ethanol would produce, for instance, but they don't really have a good idea of what that means - until Pattawong lights it on fire.
"I can do some explosions and they can say, 'Whoa! This is how much we calculated, this is how much energy!'" she said. "It's a way to make them excited."
When the global pandemic hit and students switched to remote learning, it was harder for Pattawong to pull out her usual showstoppers. No in-classroom explosions. No ice cream frozen by using liquid nitrogen.
"The pandemic made teaching very challenging but my students and I struggled and learned together,” said Pattawong.
She learned Zoom, and to record labs to walk students through experiments. She also learned to be more flexible in setting deadlines. With some of her students home caring for children, or juggling other jobs, they weren't necessarily able to synchronize their class schedules directly to hers.
She's very excited to get back to in-person teaching, but said she'll keep some of the lessons the pandemic taught her. Having lecture videos available to view, for instance, helps students who missed a day get caught up with the rest of the class. And offering remote office hours makes it easier to stay in touch with students who need to catch her outside class hours.
One thing that won't change: Pattawong is still determined to make sure her students know they can be successful in her classroom.
"If you actually put the thought in your mind that you can do it, you can be successful," she said. "I want them to know that they can do it."