Teaching It Forward

Colleen Munro-Leighton helps students find their path, as other professors once did for her.

Colleen Munro-Leighton is a chemistry professor at Elmhurst College.

As a college first-year student, Colleen Munro-Leighton was undecided about her major and what she wanted to do for a living. With guidance from her professors, she discovered a passion for teaching and an aptitude for chemistry that eventually led her to a career in academia.

Along the way, she came to recognize the value of teachers and how influential they can be. Both her parents were teachers, and, as she encountered their former students, “I got to see the impact you can have, and how you can make a positive difference in so many people’s lives.”

An associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Elmhurst for the past seven years, Munro-Leighton teaches students at every level and in a range of majors, including chemistry, biology, kinesiology and nursing. In 2013-2014, she received the Elmhurst College President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, an award given based on student nominations.

In the Classroom

Munro-Leighton tailors laboratory work and research opportunities in ways she hopes will not only reinforce specific information and lab skills, but also get students excited about chemistry. More broadly, her goal is to foster critical thinking and analytical skills that her students, whether first-years or seniors, can transfer to whatever they do next—higher-level courses, graduate school, medical school or industry work.

“What matters is not whether they remember all these equations. It’s whether they’re able to figure out how to use the equations, how to problem-solve, how to make a plan and how to study,” she says. “It’s easier to see when you’re doing research in the lab and have to analyze data and decide next steps.”

She applies the same goals to how she approaches teaching. “One of my favorite things about chemistry is problem-solving, coming up with a way to figure things out,” she says. “It translates to designing experiments that allow students to figure out what’s happening. It translates to research, where we figure out how to explore and investigate. It also translates to teaching, because if I see students really struggling with something, I want to figure out how to fix it.”

Beyond the Lab

This fall, she is co-teaching a new first-year seminar called Finding My Path: Questions, Callings, Convictions. Aimed at students who haven’t declared a major, the seminar will give them opportunities to think about and develop their values, purpose and passions; and then to consider how to best pursue them.

In building the first-year seminar, Munro-Leighton broadened the focus beyond majors and careers, thinking once again about how to start preparing students for whatever comes next.

“It’s thinking about who you want to be with, where you want to be,” she says. “Find a path in life that brings you joy. If you’re still looking for that path, find joy in the path you’re on.”

Posted July 10, 2019

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