TMCC Voices: Katie Kolbet

tmcc chemistry professor katie kolbet
Rebecca A. Eckland

What’s chemistry got to do with it? If the word conjures images of beakers, bunsen burners and complicated Lewis structures that map out electron bonds between elements, perhaps it isn’t so hard to understand why students find it difficult to see universal applications for what appears, on the surface at least, to be such a specialized kind of knowledge. Yet, according to TMCC Chemistry Professor Katie Kolbet, chemistry is all around us, and tapping into that knowledge can make us more well-rounded in all areas of our lives. 

“It’s hard to get students to see [the relevance] of academic subjects like chemistry because we tend to compartmentalize our courses,” she said. “There’s an idea that you’re never going to have to write if you go into science, for example, or you’re never going to have to know any of this science stuff, because that’s not your major. But, the reality is: yes you are, because at some point you’re going to have to make a decision and you’re going to need to know how to think critically about that decision, to collect the data, make an informed risk assessment about it and to communicate that decision to others.” 

Recently in her Chemistry 122 class in a lesson on acid-base chemistry and the calculation of equilibriums, a real-life example surfaced that demonstrated the relevance of these topics. “Students think they are never going to have to do this,” Kolbet said. “But you are going to have to recognize whether or not something is acidic or basic, and beyond that, is this a dangerous acidic or basic thing?” She cited a recent incident in which a truck carrying hydrochloric acid crashed and resulted in the shutdown of a freeway for several hours.

One milliliter of hydrochloric acid was leaking from the truck every 20 minutes. “It turned out that shutting down the freeway was unnecessary—granted, it wasn’t as big as the Suez Canal being blocked, but cost-wise with all the emergency equipment, personnel and was expensive. And the decision had been made by someone who thought 'oh, acid, that’s bad!' But that caution in this respect was really unwarranted. Knowing how to make that kind of risk assessment is something that, I hope, students take away from these classes,” she said. 

Kolbet has taught all levels of chemistry at TMCC since 2005. Yet, Kolbet began her academic career at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, leading large chemistry seminars with 4,000 students each semester. It was the call to teach that brought her to TMCC where smaller class sizes and the opportunity to work directly with students in the lecture and the lab portions of classes make this career especially rewarding, regardless of the long hours grading, creating materials and updating lesson plans. 

“My favorite part is when the light bulb goes on, and I can see students making the connections when they suddenly ‘get it’,” she said. 

One Class Can Change Your Life

Although Kolbet has made a career out of teaching chemistry in higher education, she didn’t start out in this career path. “I was actually a math major,” she said. “I was looking at graduate programs in math, and I realized that those programs are all very focused on theoretical math, and I wanted to go into applications of math.” 

This realization came in Kolbet’s junior year in college, in which she had already finished the required classes for her major. What remained was a class in analytical chemistry to complete her minor. Yet, that class ended up changing the trajectory of her professional career. 

The analytical chemistry class included nine hours of lab per week in which students would solve a program given to them by the instructor. “We had to make it work, so we had to do a lot of creative thinking and problem-solving, applying what we knew about chemistry,” she said. “I just had so much fun in that class.” She was so inspired that Kolbet decided to change chemistry from her minor to a major, doing the rest of the required coursework in a year and a half to graduate with her chemistry degree. 

It was not an easy feat. “I don’t recommend this for students—taking three to four lab classes a semester is not exactly good for the brain,” she joked. Yet, Kolbet would serve as a teaching assistant as a senior in college for that analytical chemistry class and then apply for graduate programs in chemistry the following year. 

Innovative Approaches to Teaching

Kolbet’s experience in that analytical chemistry class would leave a lasting imprint not only on the subject matter on which her academic career would focus, but also her unique insights on how to help students succeed in the chemistry classroom. 

“Even though my Ph.D. research was all theoretical [and that was certainly very interesting], it wasn't as interesting as teaching,” she said, explaining that the challenge she often faces in the classroom is framed around problem-solving. 

“I'm always trying to come up with new ways to explain things by making connections with what students are doing in their biology classes, or their engineering classes. So, for me that's the problem I’m constantly solving: how do I make this work? How do I get them to think about this type of method, or how do I get them to develop their critical thinking skills? Those are always some of the larger challenges.” 

Kolbet describes her approach to developing an engaging curriculum for her students as “constant adaption.” Given that so much of what is taught in general chemistry has been left unchanged, there is no one way to teach Lewis Structures, oxidation-reduction, significant figures, to name a few. 

For the “Liberal Arts Chemistry Class'', she teaches applied chemistry and attempts to get students to see the bigger picture.  “We talk about the chemistry of the atmosphere, for example: ozone depletion or climate change and greenhouse gases. I try to get students to see kind of the big picture in terms of what's going on with science, but also that science has an impact on the rest of their lives. And that's the fun part of the class is getting students to see that the decisions they're going to make, the people they vote for... all of this is related to these topics, and that there is a chemistry behind it, and whether or not you agree if climate change is happening or if it's man-made, the chemistry is still there, the chemistry speaks for itself… Understanding the hard data and using that to make an informed decision is key."

Chemistry in the Time of COVID-19 

While Kolbet admits the challenges of remote learning have certainly been felt by chemistry students, especially in regards to working with other students and comparing results, she was able to keep the essence of her chemistry classes and labs alive through a combination of weblive sessions for the lecture portions of the course and a rotating schedule that allowed students to continue to participate in in-person labs, albeit less frequently than pre-COVID-19. 

“My students will tell you I rarely sit down during lab, I’m constantly circling like a shark in there,” she said, explaining that a virtual environment doesn’t quite allow for the same kind of interaction between the professor and students in a lab environment. This semester, she came up with a solution that maintained student safety and social distancing protocols. 

“Last fall I instituted something in the lab where we had no more than 10 people in the classroom. I divided the students in the class into thirds. So the students come every three weeks to the lab. And I've tried to break it up so that all the students are seeing the different techniques each time they participate in-person. This enables each student to participate in an in-person lab four times for the semester,” she explained. For students not physically in the lab, they nonetheless participated by connecting to the session from home via webcam and BigBlueButton. 

“The person in the lab is the ‘hands,’ so they are doing the data collection. They show their solutions to the webcam so the other students can see it. The others who are not physically in the lab are working on calculations. At the end of the lab session, the students hold a discussion about how the lab went.”

While not ideal, Kolbet instituted this method for her labs after a number of professional schools (pharmaceutical, medical, etc.) announced they would not accept classes with virtual labs. “We want to make sure that students when they graduate or finish a class, that they have those lab skills,” she said. She admits that this new format requires a lot more from her: Kolbet arrives early to make sure all the glassware is already present at each student station and adjusting supplies and procedures so they can be done by a single person because students can no longer work in pairs.  But, the extra effort has been worth it: students are typically not fond of lab-time, but this semester that has certainly changed.

“This semester students have said that they’ve missed being able to work with other people. I’ve even had some of them say that they miss lab,” she said.

Renovating TMCC Chemistry Labs

For fifteen years, Kolbet has been instrumental in advocating for updating TMCC’s chemistry labs. Thanks to a generous donation from the William N. Pennington Foundation, those renovations will be complete in Fall 2021, and will include updates to labs located in Red Mountain 303, 304, and 325. The lab in most need of those updates is RDMT 303. “It was built in 1976 and it’s finally going to be updated,” said Kolbet. “If you’ve ever set foot in that lab, you will immediately see that it needs to be renovated. There’s [virtually] no bench space, there’s no space for the students to work and there are only two sinks in the room and one of them is not usable.”

After the renovations are complete, RDMT 303 will host up to 20 Organic Chemistry students per class, with more sinks, new fume hoods, more lab bench space, more room for storage and increased space between benches that would make the space ADA compliant. “That will give our organic chemistry classes the resources they need, and then we’ll also be able to expand our offerings in organic chemistry,” she said. 

After the renovations, RDMT 325, which is currently one space, will become two labs: 325, which will house General Chemistry courses and RDMT 326, which will be a lab that will be shared with other programs in need of lab spaces, such as environmental science, engineering and physics. This will enable all programs in the physical sciences to expand their course offerings.

Supporting Student Success

Students who have taken Kolbet’s chemistry classes have gone on to pursue degrees and professions in optometry, dental hygiene, pharmacy, and medicine.  Kolbet remembers a student from her organic chemistry class who went on to pursue a four-year chemistry degree at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were so impressed that he came from a community college with his level of chemistry knowledge,” she said. “And the thing is, I teach chemistry courses the same way we teach it at a four-year institution. The difference is that I can focus on teaching. I don't have to do research. I can work on improving my teaching and specific expectations of my students. I'm also a lot more available than what you would find at a four-year institution.”

This focus on teaching and student success is what, Kolbet said, makes TMCC unique. “In the chemistry department, we really care about our students,” she said. “The fact that the professor teaches both lecture and lab makes a difference. We don’t lower our standards for students to succeed, though. We teach the same rigor that you’d find at a four-year institution, but we also provide students with opportunities to get all the help they need.” 

Kolbet also keeps an eye on other barriers to student success, such as the cost of textbooks and other supplies. “We’ve recently gone from having a textbook that was $270 that a lot of students only used for one semester to a workbook that costs only $35. So we are really trying to do the best we can for our students, and to make sure they have a good foundation so that if they go anywhere in the United States, and they’ve got an associate of science degree from TMCC, they are ready to start as a junior at a four-year institution and succeed.”

Their success is due, in part, to the realization that chemistry is relevant to our day-to-day lives. Whether due to the real-world examples Kolbet brings into the classroom, or situations inspired by her dogs, Kolbet’s chemistry classes open students’ eyes to the complex decisions and problems we face in our daily lives. In knowing at least something about chemistry, we can then have the possibility of finding relevant and workable solutions. 

For more information about the Chemistry Program at TMCC, contact the Physical Sciences department at 775-673-7183.