The Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 12, 1998
Oct. 12, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 7


Teaching Honor For Principe

Arts & Sciences prof named 1998 Maryland Professor of the Year

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

In a cabinet in his Mergenthaler office, Larry Principe, an assistant professor, keeps a disheveled copy of Chemcraft from Lionel-Porter, a book published in the 1960s that explains basic chemistry terms and principles and diagrams hundreds of basement scientist- type experiments.

The book is faded, slightly torn and smells like a chemistry lab sink, but as Principe takes it out and displays his prized possession one would think he was showing you the Dead Sea Scrolls or some ancient papyrus.

Larry Principe, an assistant professor with joint appointments in the departments of Chemistry and the History of Science, Medicine and Technology, has been named the Carnegie Foundation's 1998 Maryland professor of the year, recognizing his excellence in undergraduate teaching.

"It was my first chemistry book. It came with one of those chemistry sets that children in the 1960s were given. You can see that it was well-used at the time," Principe says, his moustached face brimming with a smile. "It's a wonderful book. I wish that people made something like this nowadays. For a 7-year-old it was a great gift. Like most chemists, I spent a lot of time making explosives in my cellar. The world of chemistry is such a great world to explore."

Although he says he's stopped making explosives, it's clear from his excited reactions that this 36-year-old man is not far removed from that 7-year-old child mixing chemicals in his cellar.

It's this enthusiasm for the sciences that has led Principe, who holds joint appointments in the departments of Chemistry and History of Science, Medicine and Technology, to be regarded as what some call a "natural" with regard to his teaching ability. Already the recipient of three major teaching awards at Johns Hopkins, this natural is now getting national recognition as Principe was named last week the 1998 Maryland Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was given the award, which is recognized as one of the most prestigious awards honoring professors, at a celebration held in his honor Oct. 8 at Remsen Hall.

Principe's selection comes as no big surprise to those who know him well. Peter Ramberg, a fellow professor of organic chemistry who has known Principe for more than 10 years, says he has long been an admirer of Principe's teaching ability.

"He has a deep love of the subjects he teaches, and he is able to convey the essentials very clearly," Ramberg says. "He's a remarkable person who seems to have a knowledge of almost everything, from the history of Western civilization to the history of science."

A native of northern New Jersey, Principe graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry and a B.A. in liberal studies from the University of Delaware, in 1983. He then went on to Indiana University to study organic chemistry, in which he received the first of his two doctoral degrees. In 1988 Principe came to Hopkins to earn his doctorate in history of science.

Principe says he has always enjoyed the learning process and owes a lot of gratitude to his parents for stressing the importance of school and, in particular, for buying him that first chemistry set as a Christmas present.

"My parents were very good at encouraging education--even explosives in the cellar," Principe jokes. "Education was extremely important to them. So if you ask me where it all starts, that is really where it starts."

Principe says that it was to help make ends meet that he started teaching part-time in the Chemistry Department at Hopkins. It was at this time that he first drew the attention of Professor Paul Dagdigian, who is now Chemistry Department chair. Due to the retirement of a full-time faculty member, a position opened up, so Principe stepped in as a lecturer.

"I knew he had some teaching experience before this, but it was clear from early on that he was a very gifted teacher, and he has just bloomed from that point on," Dagdigian says. "He's a very organized guy, and he gives very dynamic lectures. Some teachers need to be taught, but he's very charismatic, and for him it just comes naturally."

Dagdigian adds what a tremendous honor this is for both Principe and Hopkins.

"This is also a big award for the [Chemistry] Department," Dagdigian says. "It's great to be honored by the outside community. It shows that we are doing a good job."

Principe was chosen from among 10 other undergraduate teaching candidates in the state. Each college may enter up to three professors, and the judging is based on letters of endorsement from current and former students, colleagues, and president or academic deans.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education established the Professor of the Year program in 1981 and works in cooperation with the Carnegie Foundation and various higher education associations in its administration. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a policy center located in Palo Alto, Calif., is devoted to strengthening America's schools and colleges.

The award is intended to reward extraordinary dedication to undergraduate teaching, demonstrated by "excellence in the areas of impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching; service to undergraduate education in the institution, community and profession; and support from colleagues and current and former undergraduate students."

Stuart Leslie, assistant dean of undergraduate studies and professor in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology Department, said in his endorsement letter that this honor is a fitting tribute to Principe's ability. "Principe is the standard by which I measure other professors. If they come close to matching his performance, then they're doing a superb job," Leslie wrote. "To have done what he's done at a place like Hopkins is nothing short of extraordinary, and most worthy of national recognition."

In another letter, Sari Uricheck, a former student, related how Principe made an immediate impact on her undergraduate life. She recalled her first interaction with Principe, which was during a visit to his office seeking advice for the next year's courses.

"I never expected him to be interested when I explained I was majoring in chemistry so that I could use it to study artists' materials and works; however, the next week he brought me books and articles on the subject from his personal collection. From then, I knew I had a mentor of sorts," Uricheck said. "Without his inspiration, guidance, encouragement and support, my life would not be the same."

For his part, Principe says that he is very honored by the award and was deeply touched by the letters written on his behalf.

"I'm very pleased that both my colleagues and students wrote letters for this award," Principe says. "To actually think that I had an effect on somebody five years after they left my class is quite exhilarating. And quite humbling as well."

Principe pauses and smiles.

"To get an award like this it shows I must be doing something right."

At Hopkins, Principe holds a unique position as a teacher in both the sciences and the humanities, a career he sought despite the warnings of an adviser at Indiana University, who told him there was no precedent for that type of appointment.

In fact, bridging the worlds of science and the humanities is a pet project for Principe, and he sees the History of Science, Medicine and Technology as an effective meeting place between the two. Principe, whose research involves the history of alchemy and early chemists, also has his eyes on writing a textbook for organic chemistry, one that would combine modern principles with the history of the field. He says that textbooks for the subject haven't changed enough in the past 100 years and come across as being too set in stone.

"The subject is not done and finished, says Principe, author of the recent The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemist Quest (Princeton University Press). "Textbooks in general need a bigger dose of intellectual honesty."

Although Principe has become hugely popular as a teacher, attracting students from a variety of majors to his lectures, he is known as a tough grader and one who does not give cream-puff exams.

"It is important to emphasize that Larry's popularity is not because he grades easily or waters down the material. If anything, Larry holds students to higher standards than others and there has been no grade inflation,' " David Draper, a professor in the Chemistry Department, said in his nominating letter. "Larry is a wonderful example of how it is possible to teach a demanding, difficult course effectively and at the same time gain the respect and admiration of his students. He is truly an extraordinary teacher."

Other teaching awards that Principe has been awarded by the university are the Distinguished Faculty Award, Excellence in Teaching Award and, just recently, the George Owen Teaching Award.

What is the secret to his success? As a teacher, Principe says that it's his responsibility to instill a sense of intellectual discipline in his students. He says he does this not by just making his students memorize a bunch of theories and names but by making sure they actually understand the principles behind the theories and why, for example, a particular chemical reaction is taking place--a not-so-easy task, Principe admits, in a course like organic chemistry.

"Mostly what I try to do is take a subject like organic chemistry, a subject [that is] very complex and rich in facts, and try to break it down into just a few principles. I emphasize the principles first and then show specific examples," Principe says. "It's nothing about memorization. It's very easy to teach that way; you take the material out of the book and you have the students memorize it. But in the end what have you done? You've trained a bunch of parrots. It doesn't help you understand science."

Principe says another trick to teaching is minimizing the stress students feel in class. He says that students typically squander half of their intellectual activity on stress, and it does much more harm than good.

He relates an example of a student who was getting D grades on her exams and was at her wit's end. Principe says the student was very bright and knew the information but just couldn't get it down on paper the day of the exam.

"I told her you have to do something to relieve the stress. I told her to drink a glass of wine before the exam, and she goes, You want me to drink before a test?' I told her, I don't care what you do, but do something--run around the building once just before the test, go to a movie the night before the test instead of studying.' She tried it, and sure enough she got on A on the next exam."

Principe says he likes to tell that story to his students to get across his point about stress. He adds that he encourages all his students to see him if they are having a problem with class, or if they just want to talk about that day's lecture. Principe says his door is always open for people who want to talk about science.

"These subjects excite me. I like to talk about them, and I want to light that fire in the students," Principe says. "I love it when the light bulb goes on over a student's head and he says, Oh! Of course.' I think that is great."

Follow this link for Dean Herbert Kessler's Remarks in Honor of Larry Principe, "Maryland Professor of the Year".