Prashant Jain receives two awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Prashant Jain teaches a physical chemistry class in Noyes Laboratory.

Prof. Prashant Jain has distinguished himself as an innovative award-winning researcher, but his passion for and dedication to chemistry has also distinguished him as a teacher. The University and the College of LAS are both honoring Jain with special awards for his excellence in teaching physical chemistry to undergraduates, which he describes as "a true joy."

The UIUC Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs has selected Jain as recipient of the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award, which he will receive at the Celebration of Teaching Excellence in April. And the College of LAS has selected 14 professors, graduate students, lecturers, and an advisor as recipients of the 2024 teaching and advising awards, including Jain, who will receive an LAS Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He is the first chemistry faculty member to have received the LAS Dean’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the university's Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award. 

“We are proud to have such an impressive group of people advancing our vital teaching and advising goals,” said Venetria K. Patton, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS. “We received exceptional feedback from students and alumni about them. They truly devote themselves to preparing others for the future.”  

Jain is the G.L. Clark Professor of Physical Chemistry. He teaches lecture and laboratory courses in physical chemistry, which are commonly regarded with anxiety by undergraduates, but Jain has consistently received excellent teaching evaluations as he strives to make the subject matter engaging through his innovative teaching techniques and dedication. “Because he loves the subject himself, I was able to enjoy the subject more as well,” one student wrote in support of Jain’s nomination.

Jain said teaching undergraduate students has been "a true joy."

"On class days, I am filled with energy. Going to class is often the focal point of my day. What I love most is seeing in my students' eyes a spark of wonder and excitement about a new chemical principle or phenomenon covered in class," Jain said.

He mostly teaches Physical Chemistry II (Chem 444), which covers thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, but also teaches the Basic Physical Chemistry Laboratory and Advanced Physical Chemistry Laboratory. He said he doesn't bring any notes or PowerPoint slides to his Chem 444 lectures and there is no assigned textbook.

Prashant Jain teaches class standing in front of a wipe off board.

"As a pedagogical device, I often use an interactive, Socratic-style dialogue alongside a mathematical chalk talk," he explained. "This approach helps students arrive at concepts and principles or explain the origin of chemical phenomena ab initio (from the beginning). The aim is not to lecture at them but have them participate in the genesis and development of a concept with the necessary mathematical rigor. Often, I have the class imagine as if they were the first ones to require or discover a new concept, for example, temperature or chemical equilibrium, and how they would go about the logical and mathematical development."

He said that he covers many chemical and physical phenomena in the course, but he also uses examples from areas such as economics, election polling, information science, and astrophysics, especially when they are striking and instructive.

"This also helps students appreciate the broad applicability and universality of the chemical principles and tools they learn," he explained. 

Even the quick transition to an online teaching format during the pandemic did not deter Jain from continuing his chalk talks in class.

"At the start of the pandemic when we had to swiftly transition to online teaching, I decided to use a writing tablet to give these chalk talks on Zoom. But a stylus pen I had ordered was delayed. Instead of switching to PowerPoint, I made a stylus out of a pencil and aluminum foil that I was able to use for a couple of online lectures before the stylus was delivered," Jain said.

— By Tracy Crane, Department of Chemistry