Bannier: Expanding chemistry education

May 25, 2018

Don’t trust atoms… they make up everything.

There are many ways to bridge difficult subjects, with humor being but one of many. Chemistry can certainly be considered an intimidating subject to the uninitiated, but one professor at Lake Region State College has been finding new and intriguing ways to bring the topic to her students. Although she doesn’t necessarily resort to ancient chemistry jokes like that one to do it.

Dr. Betsy Bannier, Professor of Chemistry, has been working in her current role teaching online chemistry full-time for LRSC since 2008. But, she’s been connected to the school for far longer.

From 1998 through 2001, she taught as an adjunct instructor for LRSC at the Education Center on Grand Forks Air Force Base, where she discovered that she really loved working with nontraditional students. Later, she began teaching chemistry classes online on a part-time basis.

“Many people don’t realize that LRSC and the North Dakota University System were among the nation’s pioneers in offering laboratory science classes online,” she stated. “I’m proud to have been a small part of that!”

Bannier stated that if there was one aspect of her role that she enjoyed more than others, it was in helping students connect chemistry concepts to their own real world interests.

“For many students, and perhaps especially for adults returning to school for very specific purposes, understanding the ‘So what?’ behind the subtopics of the course they are working through is really important,” she said. “’So what? How is this going to help me in a hospital/on the farm/on an oil rig?’ Those are fair questions, and helping students really understand those connections is a highlight of my job.”

Bannier teaches entirely online, and noted that she enjoyed playing a small role with other online faculty in offering life-changing opportunities through distance ed.

“There are plenty of learners on our campuses for whom online courses are one tool among many in, for example, completing a degree at an accelerated pace or managing an occasional on-campus scheduling conflict,” she said. “I’m glad those students have access to online classes! For me personally, however, the greatest reward is in working with students whose only avenue to a certificate or a degree is via distance education. There are so many folks who are working full time, raising young children or caring for elders, serving active duty in the military, managing health conditions, et cetera, whom we will never see on campus. Distance education is a life changer for these students. I love having a hand in providing that service.”

Teaching – especially through the digital realm – can bring plenty of changes. For Bannier, the biggest that she’s seen in the past decade was the sheer increase in availability of diverse, high quality lab activities in her subject.

“When I began teaching online, I was shipping lab kits to students myself,” she recalled. “This approach served its purpose, but making use of newer laboratory learning services – which are inexpensive and customizable – is so much more efficient.

“What hasn’t changed is my ‘old school’ use of the telephone in connecting with and assisting some of my returning adult students,” she added. “Videoconferencing with all of the accompanying bells and whistles is great, but for some returning adults, stepping away from the computer and simply talking through course-related questions over the phone is more comfortable. When students are comfortable with their learning tools, learning improves.”

While online spaces can allow for plenty of off-topic remarks and conversations, Bannier said these types of discussions have a tendency to strengthen the learning environment in her digital classrooms.

“It’s easy to overlook the importance of the informal connections which take place in (and just before/just after) face-to-face classes,” she said. “Discussing weekend plans, children’s antics, and crazy work shifts is precisely what leads students to become comfortable correcting each other’s chemistry practice problems and working together on projects. If you find a photo in my course shells featuring my tabby cat ‘reading’ a chemistry book, or wonder about my asking for gardening tips in an online class discussion, now you know why.”

While her role focuses on instruction, Bannier does find time for educational research, publishing and speaking about her findings.

“I find it personally interesting – research activities are completed after and outside of my teaching responsibilities, which always come first. I also serve on several committees, and currently serve as vice president of the Council of College Faculties, a role I enjoy and take seriously,” she added. Beyond those roles, she also has a neat volunteer gig with NASA.

“I’m a Solar System Ambassador – a member of a volunteer outreach program coordinated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory,” Bannier said. “I have access to training and materials provided by NASA scientists, and in turn I develop community outreach programming to share with others. The programs I coordinate range from brief classroom visits and library events to larger community events such as space-themed science fairs and Solar System Explorers nights at neighborhood community centers.”

Outside of the academic sphere, she focuses on aiding the needs of the homeless and of children, providing meals for two programs benefitting homeless members of my community.

“During the winter months, I bring a hot dinner for 30 guests once per month to a facility which serves as a temporary overnight shelter,” she said. “During the warmer months, I prepare bagged dinners once per month which are delivered by an amazing man named Larry, who was formerly homeless himself, to areas of the city where homeless individuals seek outdoor shelter.

“Every December, my mother and I coordinate The Santa Project, where we accept donations of school supplies and candy to prepare and ship Santa Bags to children at a school in a deep poverty district in rural Mississippi,” Bannier continued. “This past December was the 10th year of The Santa Project, which has now delivered over 5,000 gift bags.”

Bannier added that her 20 years in education have provided plenty to be proud of.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since I taught my first class for Lake Region State College,” she concluded. “When I applied, I thought teaching would make a pleasant part-time job for a few years. Ha! As it turned out, I loved it, and had the benefit of excellent mentoring from more seasoned educators along the way. Lake Region State College is more than a college, it’s a family, and one in which I’m proud to be a member.”