Big Bang Theory: Jill Castiglia
USC Lancaster chemistry professor is not afraid to blow things up
By Craig Brandhorst, email@example.com, 803-777-3681
Jill Castiglia begins each semester with a bang — and she always gets a reaction.
A University of South Carolina Lancaster chemistry instructor and the Lancaster chemistry department’s lab manager, Castiglia teaches the full complement of introductory chemistry courses at the campus, which sometimes means blowing things up.
“The first day of class I always bring samples, we always do reactions,” says Castiglia, winner of the 2017 John J. Duffy Excellence in Teaching Award. “If I catch their attention by blowing something up, then they’re much more likely to want to learn why that happened.”
And the biggest, most explosive, most attention-grabbing reaction?
“When I blow up hydrogen in a u-tube,” she says, “it sounds basically like a gunshot.”
It’s a dramatic effect designed to demonstrate the redox reaction, which her classes revisit later in the semester, and it’s an effect made all the more dramatic by Castiglia’s approach, which she describes as fun, casual and highly interactive.
“There’s a blue flame that comes out of the u-tube so we turn the lights off,” she says. “And then I say, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re ready! Come on! Go ahead!’ and then I do it, and they say, “Oh, we weren’t ready!”
She laughs — because the reaction is always the same, because she knows how to get that reaction, because as a former high school teacher she’s been getting that reaction for a long time.
But don’t mistake experience for autopilot. Castiglia is constantly tweaking her approach, trying to keep the classroom fresh for her students and for herself.
“I very rarely teach the same thing the same way twice,” says Castiglia. “I’m always trying to figure out, ‘Okay, this works here, this doesn’t work here,’ and I’m always interested in making things more engaging, to get students more involved in their own education.”
We’re constantly working problems together, doing demonstrations. I call on every single student, every single day, at least once, usually more like two or three times a day. They can’t just sit there like a vessel waiting to be filled.
Castiglia is also interested in helping students become better students, which means conquering the age old problem of procrastination. “They’re all able to do the work,” she says. “It’s a matter of encouraging them to stay on top of things, whether it’s in class or in the lab.”
And the formula for that?
“I nag them, I do!” she says. “I was a high school teacher for 22 years before I came here so I’m good at being the nagging mom.”
As she points out, most of her students are right out of high school, and in many respects, she says, her teaching style more closely resembles a high school classroom approach — just with college-level material.
“I do not lecture,” she says. “We’re constantly working problems together, doing demonstrations. I call on every single student, every single day, at least once, usually more like two or three times a day. They can’t just sit there like a vessel waiting to be filled.”
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