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UB's Ken Takeuchi is Carnegie Foundation's New York Professor of the Year

Release Date: November 18, 2010

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Named the Carnegie Foundation's New York Professor of the Year, Takeuchi tells his students: "Do experiments that go beyond your understanding. Be curious, be patient and go past the unexpected. Try things that don't make sense!"

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The night before Ken Takeuchi started teaching Chemistry 101 back in 1983, he walked into the empty classroom in Acheson Hall on the University at Buffalo's South Campus, where he was about to begin his career.

"I wrote something on the board and then I went and sat down in the very last row," he says. "I realized that if I wanted the students in the back row to see, I would have to make my letters eight inches high. It started me thinking, how can I present this information so that if I were sitting in this chair, it would mean something to me? I had to present the science so as to captivate the students' imagination."

This initial insight prompted Takeuchi to begin developing a philosophy about teaching, about transforming the classroom experience into something that would resonate with students.

That philosophy has served him well over his 27-year career, during which he has instructed more than 4,500 students.

This month, Takeuchi, a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, was named the 2010 Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching New York Professor of the Year, a first for a UB faculty member. He will receive the award Nov. 18 at an awards luncheon at the W Hotel in Washington DC, followed by an evening reception at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

With an active research agenda and a challenging teaching schedule, mentorship of individual students is clearly a top priority for him.

"I think it takes an extraordinarily rare gift to talk to 80 students, or even 400 as Dr. Takeuchi sometimes does, and make them all feel like they're part of the same experience, but he manages to do it," says Brian Danielak, formerly a UB Distinguished Honors Scholar and now a doctoral candidate in science education at the University of Maryland. "When he's teaching, Dr. Takeuchi strikes an exceptional balance between deep thoughtfulness, personal attention to students and an insuppressible sense of wonder toward his discipline."

Illinois State University professor of chemistry and UB alumna Lisa Szczepura notes, "Dr. Takeuchi has the ability to inspire his students to strive for excellence, while providing them with the skills and motivation necessary to reach their goals. He is the reason I am a chemist today."

Takeuchi says it's all about establishing a dialogue.

"If all you do is present information and your students don't understand why it's important or if they think you don't care about it, then why should they? But if a professor provides motivation to students, that will get through to students more than anything else."

That approach has made Takeuchi one of UB's most popular professors, a feat that is all the more significant because chemistry isn't considered the most student-friendly subject. As one student noted in an anonymous course evaluation for Chemistry 105 in Fall 2009: "I enjoyed taking this course with Dr. Takeuchi and had he not been the instructor, I might have felt differently about the entire course. Dr. Takeuchi definitely had an impact on my attitude toward chemistry and his inspiration and belief that his students will become something great has influenced my self-esteem and confidence."

Takeuchi is especially interested in communicating science so that students understand not just the mechanics of science, but the whole research enterprise. "We can give our students historical perspective on scientific discoveries," he says, "but students need to see how the pioneers made those discoveries."

In Chemistry 105, for example, he discusses Ernest Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics. Takeuchi discusses Rutherford's experiments involving alpha particles that were fired at a very fast rate into a thin sheet of gold. Takeuchi explains to his students that Rutherford then had the idea to place chemical detectors at different angles, allowing him to detect particles which scattered in different directions, including some which bounced back toward the source, a phenomenon that was absolutely unexpected.

From that result, explains Takeuchi, Rutherford concluded that radioactivity goes straight through the electrons in the gold atoms but when it hits the nucleus, it bounces off at different angles. Rutherford then realized that an atom's mass must be located primarily in the positively charged nucleus, creating a foundation for the modern view of the atom.

It was Rutherford's curiosity and interest, Takeuchi emphasizes, that led him to do the additional experiment, leading to a momentous discovery.

"If I had been doing the experiment," he says, "maybe I would not have taken that second step, not because I'm not intelligent, but because I limited the importance to what made sense to me."

The lesson? "In reality, you have to try things that don't make sense!" he tells students. "Do experiments that go beyond your understanding. Be curious, be patient and go past the unexpected. You could be the next Rutherford!"

In this way, he tries to get across to his students that determination and curiosity can be even more important than intelligence.

"You don't have to be a genius," I tell them, "but you have to have a real sense of wanting to know. I tell my students, 'If you think that what you're studying is important, then you have a good chance of making a discovery. You will do it because you care more. You will go the extra step.' "

In impressing this upon his students, Takeuchi also tries to get them to understand something about the big breakthroughs that have occurred throughout all the disciplines.

"Discoverers think differently," he says.

And that, he says, is an argument for more diversity.

As a mentor to hundreds of students, many of them from underrepresented groups, Takeuchi says that it is critical for professors to help students of all abilities find their place academically.

"You have to prove to your students that they may have the right persistence or the right perspective to succeed, even if they are in the middle or the bottom of the class," he says. "Raw intelligence is not the number one issue. If I can prove to them that they are special, maybe I will convince them."

To share this teaching philosophy, Takeuchi regularly travels to other SUNY campuses, including Albany, Oneonta and Geneseo. He has given numerous invited lectures or speeches on teaching, learning and mentoring to audiences ranging from student tutors to teaching assistants and professors.

"Dr. Kenneth Takeuchi is an inspiration to faculty members statewide," says Amy Crouse-Powers from the SUNY College at Oneonta Center for Academic Development and Enrichment. "It is a truly wise professor who not only reaches a level of expertise in his or her field, but also in the methods of teaching college students. His focus on forming learning relationships with students and his belief in the careful and continual assessment of student learning resonate with me, and his message has been extremely well received by my colleagues."

Takeuchi also teaches a variety of instructors at UB, including undergraduate and graduate student tutors, especially those who teach students from underrepresented groups, through the UB Center for Academic Development Services (CADS), the Educational Opportunity Program, the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program and the Ronald E. McNair program.

"A number of talented minority and majority chemistry majors say they have chosen that field because of Professor Takeuchi's efforts to set them at ease or help them find resources and support, all of which was above and beyond his professional obligation," says Henry Durand, PhD, CADS director and senior associate vice provost at UB.

And Betty Shadrick, PhD, manager of the University at Albany's Alliance for Graduate Education and director of graduate student diversity, adds, "Professor Takeuchi is an uncommonly decent individual who possesses the unique ability to help students see and realize opportunities that they never dreamed possible to achieve. He gives sound advice, willingly gives his time to help students refine their research agendas and deeply cares about creating a cadre of future scientists from culturally diverse backgrounds. I count myself privileged to know him."

A member of the UB faculty since 1983, Takeuchi has received numerous teaching awards, including the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Most Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award from the Graduate Student Association and the Friend of EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) Award.

A four-time winner of the Milton Plesur Teaching Award from the undergraduate Student Association, he also is the recipient of the Responsible Care Catalyst Award from the Chemical Manufacturers Association, a national award honoring individuals who, through their excellent teaching ability both in and out of the classroom, inspire students to choose careers in chemistry and science-related fields. In addition, he was national runner-up for the only national student-nominated faculty award, the Inspire Integrity Award, administered by the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

Takeuchi has served as a mentor to a number of student programs, including the Minority High School Student Research Apprenticeship Program, the New York State Summer Institute for Science and Mathematics, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Program and the University Honors College.

He is a recipient of the McNair Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award, the CSTEP Essential Piece Award and the American Chemical Society's Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences. Takeuchi holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Cincinnati and a doctorate in chemistry from The Ohio State University.

He is a resident of East Amherst.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

Media Contact Information

Ellen Goldbaum
Senior Editor, Medicine
Tel: 716-645-4605
goldbaum@buffalo.edu
Twitter: @egoldbaum