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Chemistry Professor John Vollmer ‘s Innovative Approach to Organic Chemistry a Success with Students

Mills College Weekly

It’s a Monday in a Mills College classroom in the computer
math and sciences division. This Monday is no different than any
other morning for the organic chemistry students of professor John
Vollmer. It’s 9 a.m. and geometric 3-D molecule sets are
spread out across the students’ desks. Sitting behind the
prebuilt cyclohexane models are the curious eyes of 22 young women.
Vollmer instructs the women to grab hold of their models. He begins
to bend and fold his model, asking his students to do the same. The
cyclohexane kits, in the shape of a simple stop sign, begin to
twist and re-form in the student’s hands. Vollmer explains to
the women, as they continue to explore moving their models, that
they are seeing the different conformations of the cyclohexane
molecule. For the remainder of the class period the students work
alongside Vollmer to build and understand the other existing forms
of cyclohexane.

Organic chemistry is Vollmer’s specialty. For many others
it is hard to grasp because there is no visual basis to learning
this completely “new language” of science. Vollmer
teaches his students this language through his approach of visual
learning. “I want to help them learn to see,” he

“Teaching organic chemistry is all about
visualization,” says Vollmer, and that’s precisely the
approach that he takes in his classroom methods. “I want to
interact with students in a meaningful way,” he says. And he
does just that. The approach to teaching chemistry that Vollmer has
developed over the years is one of his own.

“Dr. Vollmer’s class is the first science class that
I have ever taken where I don’t need to go home and read the
textbook to understand. I get it right as he lectures, he just does
it differently,” said student Sig Hartnett.

Vollmer often uses molecular modeling structures in class.
Organic chemistry is centered on understanding chemical structures.
The models help students visualize the concepts he teaches by
making them build the structures themselves. They are forced to
explore the principles with their own hands.

At the beginning of a class Vollmer sells to each student a
binder, consisting of over 500 overhead transparencies that he uses
throughout the semester. “These are the backbone of my
teaching,” says Vollmer. As he lectures every day, students
follow along with his transparencies, taking notes in their
individual binders.

“As they take notes in the binder it helps in the
fundamental process of visualization, all the drawings are right in
front of them,” says Vollmer. Students don’t have to
spend their class time copying drawings and formulas from the
board, rather they are allowed to focus more on what Vollmer is
teaching them.

Chemistry can oftentimes be the most difficult hurdle for
students who want to study science in college. One step above that
is organic chemistry, a challenging class that all premed students
must overcome, and is oftentimes the deal breaker for entrance to
medical school.

When Vollmer was in college he remembers an art history teacher
who helped him to “see” by examining a piece of art.
“Because of that experience I remember him, not because he
gave me a bunch of cold insignificant facts, but because he made me
feel something that I didn’t know was there.”

Vollmer came to Mills “well, a long time ago,” he
said with a chuckle. For over 30 years he has joined with the
chemistry department as both a teacher and part of a team of
dedicated people who work to shape the college into what it has
become today. Far and beyond the usual framework of being just
another chemistry teacher, Vollmer grew into a mentor and motivator
for countless students who have gone on to leave Mills and
contribute their own part to the changing world of science.

Organic chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley is
a class of over 600 students. And, naturally, Vollmer teaches the
22-student class at Mills College a little bit differently.
Vollmer’s approach to teaching through visualization would be
impossible in a classroom of hundreds of students, and that’s
what makes it so special.

Vollmer is still in the exact same classroom that he taught in
his first day at Mills College. He is a small man, with fluffy
black hair and a gentle air about him. He stands to about half way
up the black board, and speaks with a thick accent. There is
nothing visually fancy about him; he is an outwardly simple

Vollmer described his college experience at UCLA as difficult.
“I had the hardest time adjusting,” he says, “I
could do the stuff, I just hated doing it.” After receiving
his degree in engineering, Vollmer knew he wanted to be a teacher,
and UCLA helped to shape his perspective about exactly what he
wanted out of his career. “I wanted to go to an institution
where teaching is valued rather than just research,” he said,
“and I wanted to come to a place where I could interact with
my students.”

Vollmer remembered a fellow classmate of his who later returned
to UCLA and became a chemistry professor. “He was a big name
in research so they asked him to come and teach,” says
Vollmer, “and I’ve heard from students that his
[teaching] evaluations are all terrible.”

All this about a well-developed teaching method leads both
people to ask only one question. Does Vollmer’s approach
really work? I asked him this question and Vollmer pushed back his
roller chair in his small office next to the organic chemistry lab
to pull a large three ring binder out of his shelf overcrowded with
textbooks. It was full of collections of letters, publications, and
papers published by former students.

“I didn’t have the ability to enjoy science until I
came to Mills,” said Noemi Steiner in a science article that
was published. Steiner is an alumni who had Vollmer as both an
advisor and teacher. Noemi now has two PhDs and a MD from Stanford
and works as a physician in Martinez.

Chris Russel, class of ‘71, another of Vollmer’s
chemistry students, won an award from the American Chemical Society
back in the mid ‘80s. At her acceptance speech she spoke of
her excellent science education at Mills and thanked Vollmer for
providing her with a strong background in chemistry. She pointed
him out to the crowd, as he was a member of the audience, remembers
Vollmer. Russel currently serves on the Board of Trustees at

Deborah Watson, an alum with a Harvard medical school degree who
is currently conducting research their neurology department also
speaks highly of Vollmer. She visited him in September at the
chemistry department reunion and thanked him for his contribution
to her success in the sciences.

“It’s great to know that they appreciate me, and I
appreciate them too,” said Vollmer.

In life aside from Mills, Vollmer is raising two daughters. One
is 15, the other 20. His eldest daughter goes to UCLA as well, and
is studying in the premed field. Vollmer spoke of his daughters
field of study in saying, “I stayed away from influencing
her, because a child has to live with that decision forever, and
too many parents make that choice for their children.”

Aside from being a professor, Vollmer has also taken it upon
himself to become a part of the college he loves so much. He is
constantly developing integrated paths within the science
department. Several years ago, alongside biology professor Dr. John
Harris, Vollmer developed the environmental science major and
implemented the entire ENVS department.

Vollmer believes that teaching is as simple as helping people to
see something they never knew existed. “If you can see the
molecule after I am done, then I’ve helped you,” he
said with a smile. Inside of his office, a small button caught my
eye as I was leaving. “Science is fun” it read. It is
evident that Vollmer wears his love for science on his sleeve even
after so many years of teaching. “I still love it just as
much as I did the first day I started,” he said.