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Campus Profile -- Donald R. Sadoway

Beloved 3.091 Professor shares his perspective on teaching freshmen

By Ricarose Roque

Professor Donald R. Sadoway is the lecturer for the popular introductory class Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry (3.091), and the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry. In 1995, he was named as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, which is reported to be “MIT’s highest award for excellence in undergraduate education,” and last year, he was elected Member of the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences. Professor Sadoway has authored over 100 research papers and also holds 11 U.S. patents.

The Tech: Where are you from?

Sadoway: I grew up in Toronto, born in a town called Oshwal about 35 miles east of Toronto. I went to high school there as well. Afterwards I went to the University of Toronto and got everything there -- both undergrad and graduate degrees. I finally left Canada when I became a NATO fellow for a year to get my postdoc.

TT: How did you wind up at MIT?

Sadoway: Well, I came here to round up my education, but I unexpectedly got a job offer at the same time. I’ve been here ever since.

TT: Do you miss Canada?

Sadoway: No, I like it here.

TT: What do you think of the class of 2006?

Sadoway: They’re terrific.

TT: You are a part of the admissions team, right?

Sadoway: Yes, for three years now. This year I chaired the Committee of Undergraduate Admissions Financial Aid. We act as a liaison for the financial aid office and the admissions office. Though I had the pleasure of being a part of the decisions process too.

TT: How long have you been teaching 3.091?

Sadoway: Since 1995. I am on my 8th year now. I actually started out as a recitation instructor 25 years ago. I had an 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. class. I still keep on touch with some of the people from that class.

TT: Do you see a difference between the students you taught in 1978 to the ones you teach today?

Sadoway: The students today are much broader than those in 1978. They’re more familiar with the world and not so narrowly focused on science.

TT: Why do you play music in your lectures?

Sadoway: There’s usually time available. I think it enriches the educational experience. It’s an opportunity to connect with the students. I don’t believe that the class should be strictly chemistry centered. I feel that it enhances the learning experience when you integrate the lesson with disparate sources. I sometimes add literary references and paintings. I also add ethics into the lecture. Usually you would have to take another class for ethics.

TT: Would you say that’s your teaching philosophy?

Sadoway: It has evolved over time. I’d say in the beginning I stayed close to the teaching equation. But by the time I took over 3.091, I was able to make changes in the format.

TT: You’ve recently put the class on Web cast. How’s that going?

Sadoway: We initially started a cablecast last year so that we could decrease the class size. I didn’t want to teach two lectures, but I also didn’t want to reject students. At one point the class size reached 532 students. The Web cast has become a great learning tool, actually. Students have been e-mailing me on how they use it to look back into certain points of the lecture that they missed or were not very clear to them. We’ve actually had people watching the lectures from all over the world -- from the Netherlands, Singapore, even my hometown Toronto. Since I sometimes use copyrighted information in my lecture, we’ve had to require Web certificates to access the Web cast so that we won’t have to deal with copyright issues.

TT: What is your concentration?

Sadoway: Electrochemistry

TT: What are your research goals?

Sadoway: First I’d like to find a flexible solid-state rechargeable battery that can go 400 miles on a single charge. I want to get rid of the internal combustible engine and end the use of petroleum for personal transportation at least. Second, I want to change the development of metal production. Right now it’s filthy. All this should be enough work to last me a lifetime. I’m also working with the Media Lab right now on a new design for an automobile. We’re hoping to cross-fertilize the architectural and automotive industry and see the relationship between the car and the city.

TT: Is the new car going to be like Simmons?

Sadoway: I think aerodynamics is going to prevent the car from being another Simmons.

TT: What’s your favorite element, metal, compound, or molecule?

Sadoway: That’s such an open question. I have different ones for different reasons. If you asked me what precious metal I like, I’d say iridium. It’s a beautiful, frosty white metal.

TT: How did you get into chemistry, then?

Sadoway: I first got interested in high school. I was going to do chemical engineering, but around that time there was too much petroleum in the field. I wanted to express my interest but without all that carbon so I got into chemical metallurgy.

TT: Out of curiosity, how many ties do you own?

Sadoway: Lots. I’d have to go home and count them. Let’s just say I don’t know the answer to that question.

TT: Why do you wear a suit in all of your lectures?

Sadoway: I like to dress up. I also like to think that when you’re teaching a big class what I wear sends I message to the students that this is a serious enterprise.

TT: What kind of car do you drive?

Sadoway: 1982 Avanti with the body of a 1964 Studebaker. I just love industrial design. I like its elegant ways using materials in beautiful forms.

TT: What’s your favorite science joke?

Sadoway: The one about the two hydrogen atoms at a bar is a funny. There’s a special appeal to this joke to an MIT audience especially freshmen who just learned about ionization energy. You get a riotous laughter and then you know you’re at MIT.

Two Hydrogen Atoms Joke:

These two hydrogens atoms got into a bar. It’s a nice place. They go sit right at the bar. One of them orders a Martini; the other orders a Manhattan, if I’m not mistaken. Their having a great time, they’re talking. All of a sudden people start screaming, they turn and its Rutherford! And Rutherford’s really angry. I mean the guy’s packing twin Ultra violet lasers. He looks like a one man wrecking crew.

And before anybody can move, he starts shooting -- and one of the hydrogens is hit.

He falls to the floor and his buddy says, “Are you alright?”

He [the fallen hydrogen] says, “No. I’ve been hit.”

“Is it bad?” his friend says.

“It’s serious. I think I’ve lost an electron.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’m positive!”