Q&A with a Chemistry Tutor

Q&A with a Chemistry Tutor

We chatted with Austin, one of our top chemistry tutors. See his full profile here!

What is your experience with chemistry?

I gained an appreciation for chemistry from my high school chemistry teacher, with whom I took both general chemistry (a year-long course) and an advanced chemistry elective, which was focused on lab work. In college, I was a chemistry major (with minors in math and philosophy) and took literally every chemistry course my small university offered, ranging from biological and organic chemistry to quantum mechanics and analytical chem. My focus, though, was in organic chemistry, which is the field I did my undergraduate research in. After college, I spent a couple of years as an organic chemist at the drug company Pfizer. I wasn’t thrilled with being in the industry, though, so decided to return to graduate school, where I earned my PhD in inorganic chemistry. Now I teach organic and inorganic chemistry labs to advanced undergraduate students, as well as tutor chemistry for Signet.

How have you studied for chemistry? What do you wish you had done differently?

I had the benefit of having really good chemistry teachers throughout both high school and college, as well as really small classes, so I had a lot of direct interaction with my instructors, so asked TONS of questions. I do wish I had read my textbooks more when I was initially learning chemistry; a well-written textbook can be a really good supplement to a teacher’s explanations.

how did you start tutoring?

I was approached by one of my chemistry professors during the second semester of my freshman year of college, asking if I’d be willing to help teach his general chemistry lab sections. It was my first exposure to teaching, and I loved it. I have been teaching in classroom settings for over a decade since that first experience, and started doing one-on-one tutoring with Signet Education (then Veritas Tutors) way back in 2010.

How would you describe your approach?

I try to describe the theoretical and esoteric world of chemistry in a systematic, understandable, and real-world way, with as many examples as possible. I’m also a big believer in kinesthetic (hands-on) learning, so I very often use molecular model kits to help my students learn about the three-dimensional world of chemistry. The thing I try to emphasize is that problem-solving brings deeper understanding than just reading or explaining something; I like to work through challenging problems step by step, explaining the reasoning and method behind the answers, not just memorize them.

In your opinion, what 3 things lead to success in chemistry courses?

  1. Ask questions early! Chemistry builds on itself, and if you don’t understand a fundamental concept taught early in the semester, you are likely to get lost later on.
  2. Keep track of units! Problem solving in chemistry very often uses lots of formulas, and keeping track of the units in your calculations will almost always tell you if you’ve done your calculations correctly or not.
  3. Don’t be intimidated! Chemistry has the reputation of being one of the hardest classes any high school or college student will take; it IS hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s beyond you. Embrace the challenge, and you’ll learn some really fascinating stuff. And, you’ll be able to wow your parents by explaining why we put salt on the roads in the winter and why old copper turns green!

What do you for work when you’re not tutoring?

I work as a preceptor in chemistry at Harvard, which means I teach general, organic, and inorganic chemistry labs mostly to juniors and seniors.

What do you do for fun?

I am a big foodie, and love to cook, bake, eat out, explore new cuisines, and watch the Food Network. I’m also a big traveler, and have been to 46 states (still waiting on AK, MT, ID, and MS) and over 30 countries. I also practice yoga and tennis, play Candy Crush Saga obsessively, and read fantasy novels whenever my head isn’t buried in chemistry journals.

Why do you like tutoring chemistry?

I love seeing students feel the satisfaction of grasping really challenging concepts, and chemistry provides plenty of challenging concepts! I also am a huge advocate for the popularization of science and broadening public science education. I think a basic understanding of science is really crucial for living in today’s world and making intelligent decisions about nutrition, health, energy, environmentalism, and a host of other topics. I like to help that cause however I can, including helping high school and college students really enjoy and understand chemistry.

Do you have any great anecdotes you can share?

A student once came to me for help with college level organic chemistry, who had done exceptionally well in her science classes in high school, but was really struggling to do well in her college classes. Through the course of our first few sessions, I learned that she’d had her high school chemistry courses abroad—in a British-style school. The Brits and the Americans tend to teach chemistry VERY differently, and her understanding of the chemical background she needed was not the same understanding her American professors expected. Luckily, I’m pretty familiar with some of the British methods, having worked with a lot of English folks while in the industry, and we spent several tutoring sessions bridging the gap between the British and American expectations. Once we’d solidified her background knowledge and she knew the stuff that her American professors presumed she’d learned in (American) high school, she was off to the races, and pulled off an A in the course!

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Austin Scharf

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