Professor Ron Pongdee brings innovative teaching style to the chemistry classroom

Pictured: Professor of Chemistry Dr. Ron Pongdee. Photo by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21).

By Samuel Carter
Contributing Writer

When entering Dr. Ron Pongdee’s organic chemistry classroom, one immediately notices students facing not him, but each other. They arrange in self-managed teams to discuss and solve problems in the subject, all while mastering a new concept along the way. Instead of standing at the projector and lecturing, Pongdee walks about the classroom offering help and direction as needed. The students’ engagement, along with his accessibility, create a noticeably energetic learning environment.

This teaching strategy is known as “Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning,” abbreviated POGIL. It seems foreign to many educators and students alike, but Pongdee finds it an effective alternative to the orthodox lecture.

Pongdee’s desire to innovate in the classroom comes from a desire to share the subject he loves: chemistry. This passion first took hold in his high school chemistry class in rural, southeastern Kentucky. His teacher sparked an interest that he carried with him as he attended Vanderbilt University for his bachelor’s degree. During his years as an undergraduate, he was especially intrigued by organic chemistry.

“It was like a big jigsaw puzzle,” he said, “and you’re trying to figure out how the pieces fit together.”

He continued to explore how to solve this puzzle as he received his doctoral degree from Texas A&M University. He intended to work for a pharmaceutical company after receiving his Ph.D., but when he received the opportunity to mentor several undergraduate students, his perspective changed.

Speaking on the mentorship, he said, “I found the experience really interesting and rewarding to teach them not just the conceptual, but technical aspects, so at that time I started thinking I should pursue a career in academia instead.”

He pursued this career, beginning at Colorado College, a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs. The university was very open to new teaching strategies, and he took advantage of this by experimenting with both lecture and application-based classrooms.

When he looked to move from Colorado Springs, Pongdee found Sewanee to be perfect for his family and teaching strategy. Geographically, it offered proximity to family members. As for his career in education, Sewanee’s personalized education experiences and socially-connected classrooms were very appealing. In 2010, he joined the chemistry department and brought his innovative teaching style, POGIL, with him.

Pongdee was first introduced to POGIL in 2009, when still at Colorado College. He attended a workshop funded by grants from the National Science Foundation that taught the new program.

The POGIL pedagogy consists of small, self-managed teams of students with a manager, scribe, analyst, and ambassador. Each student takes on a different role in each class, and they work through a packet exploring the concept together. During this time, the instructor fields questions and gives direction where needed.

Instead of simply feeding facts to the students, POGIL allows each student to observe the concept in action and then discuss the implications of it with one another. The method has been found successful in teaching both course material and soft skills, which are attributes that improve a student’s ability to interact effectively. Such skills include communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and management.

Pongdee wasn’t certain of the efficacy of the program when he first attended the workshop. “I was a little skeptical,” he said, “but it was very eye-opening for me. It made me think about what I really wanted to teach my students when they come into class.”

After attending, he elected to use the pedagogy because he felt it equipped students with necessary skills that go beyond simply looking at data. It helps them analyze the information in a way that will teach them to communicate with colleagues as they pursue their careers.

“Learning is a social enterprise,” he said, “it’s a dialogue. You’re exchanging questions and asking deeper questions related to those.”

Considering this, Pongdee finds POGIL successful because it allows students to engage in a social environment that builds confidence and masters concepts.

However, success must also be gauged by student feedback. Cade Sterling (C’22), a current student in Pongdee’s organic chemistry class, appreciates the ingenuity of the teaching style. “It yields better results than regular teaching methods,” he said, “and it creates an organic understanding of normally complex concepts.” Conner McReynolds (C’22) and Sully McCreery (C’22) both appreciated the class not revolving around lecture and found POGIL to be a more engaging way to learn.

When asked if he thought the POGIL strategy will catch on among colleagues and fellow universities, Pongdee expressed optimism but understood why some may be hesitant. He explained, “You have to be comfortable that you’re not in control of the classroom anymore. The students are in control; they’re asking questions, and you’re responding in real time.” He understands that it may not appeal to some because of this, but he hopes the sciences will become more innovative in the classroom in the future.