The Hottest Class at Westlake University

15, 2023

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
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During the past semester, every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday  at 8:00 am, classroom 211 in the Academic Ring of Yungu Campus would come to life because of Prof. Xin Zhang's Principles of Chemistry.

Even though it took place early in the morning and was an elective for everyone but chemistry majors, the course attracted 47 undergraduates, more than 75% of the entire student body admitted into the inaugural class. This turnout led many to dub the class the “hottest” at Westlake.

Prof. Xin Zhang speaks during a chemistry class

Standing on the podium before a room of eagerly awaiting students is all too familiar to Zhang. In 2015, he became an assistant professor at Penn State University and started his independent scientific research. At that time he taught a class in biochemistry. Later, during his tenure at Penn State University, he would teach a total of four undergraduate courses and one for graduate students, touching the lives of over 1,000 students. In 2021, after recommendations by hundreds of students, Zhang won the Priestley Outstanding Chemistry Teaching Award at Penn State University.

At Westlake University, this course marked the first time for Zhang to meet undergraduate students in the classroom. At the same time, it was also the first time for him to lead a chemistry class he created himself, unlike his experience  while teaching in the United States.

Understanding atoms, molecules, the nature of chemical bonds, the arrangement of electrons in molecules, and the influence of electron arrangement on chemical properties and reactions are all part of modern chemistry. "Principles of Chemistry I is a basic university course in chemistry. It mainly explores the general knowledge and theories of chemistry," Zhang said.

Zhang chose the over 1,200-page Chemistry: A Molecular Approach as the textbook for the course, which explored over 600 pages of it during the first semester.But in the classroom, you won’t see students buried in their books. Although Zhang seeks to integrate the best practices from top universities in the United States into his course, he also appreciates the differences in the high school educational experiences of Chinese and American students. He insists that students read their textbooks and preview the relevant material before class so he can focus on teaching the reasoning and evolution of the underlying knowledge.

Zhang is very much a proponent of the Socratic method of education, spontaneously forming group discussions with students. As Zhang also believes that knowledge “must be more visible”, he ensures that at least one weekly class includes experiments. Some of these classes have been especially “hot”. For example, in one experiment he poured marshmallows into liquid nitrogen, creating a crunchy but delicious treat that also illustrated the role of calories. A video of the class posted online attracted over 55,000 views.

Prof. Xin Zhang performs an experiment in class

Undergraduate student Ziqiao Wang was deeply impressed by these vivid experiments. "Prof. Zhang can explain the more abstract parts of chemical principles in a more comprehensible way. The pace of the class is not too fast or slow, which is ideal for students like us who are taking classes taught in English for the first time.”

Some undergraduates in the course gained more than just a deeper understanding of chemistry. Yixiao Xiao, who initially worried about his performance in the class, took the initiative to chat with Zhang. Through these talks, his interest in chemistry grew as he learned valuable advice for studying and life. "Just chatting with Professor Zhang can really inspire you."

Indeed, there are no communication barriers between Zhang and his students. While Zhang has taught for a long time, he still retains a youthful curiosity outside the classroom. He also enjoys life and loves to spend time cooking in his home kitchen, with rows of neatly stacked jars of seasoning.

Above all, Zhang never forgets that the most essential task of a university is to educate people. This is what you will see four days a week in his class.

This coming autumn Westlake University will welcome a new class of undergraduates, who will have the opportunity to register for Zhang’s "Principles of Chemistry I" course. Zhang welcomes students to join him as he continues to develop this course and unlock the secrets chemistry for a new generation.



Yixiao Xiao: What a Character!


The Hottest Class at Westlake University