May 27, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 18

Vanderslice Professor T. Ross Kelly, 2004 Phi Beta Kappa Teacher of the Year.

Top Teacher Honors for Kelly

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry T. Ross Kelly, designer of one of the world's smallest motors at 78 atoms in size, who uses a potato gun and a miniature cannon to bring a bang to his class in organic chemistry, has been voted Teacher of the Year at Boston College by the students of Phi Beta Kappa.

The first scientist to win the Teacher of the Year award, Kelly was honored at the academic honor society's induction ceremonies on May 23.

Students who nominated Kelly described him as an engaging teacher whose motivational skills and real-world demonstrations made the most challenging of subjects captivating.

"His enthusiasm and creativity opened the eyes of many students who were fearful of taking organic chemistry," wrote one. Another wrote: "No teacher has ever pushed me to my potential the way Dr. Kelly has. I wish every student had to take organic just so more people could benefit from his talent."

Kelly might accurately be called a scholar in motion. He earned headlines across the world five years ago with the prototype of a molecular paddle wheel that was among the world's smallest motors. He says he and his research team are nearing completion on a working model of the 78-atom motor that will rotate continuously.

The motion theme carries over to Kelly's Merkert office, where shelves and windowsills are lined with a whimsical collection of gizmos: a perpetually-pumping oil derrick, an ancient Texaco souvenir lava lamp; a Mystic Sphinx coin bank; balancing see-saws, and various tippy-birds.

The items in the Kelly curiosity cabinet have been found on the Web, received as gifts, picked up in airport gift shops. Some he uses in classroom demonstrations.

What looks like a small field-artillery piece on one shelf is a carbide cannon, fueled by calcium carbide, a substance that when mixed with water creates acetylene, as in the blowtorch. "It makes a very nice bang," Kelly said.

For a recent visitor to his office, Kelly reached under his desk and produced a several-foot-long piece of PVC pipe capped at one end with a spark-making flint - a potato gun.

"You unscrew the cap, take hairspray, which has butane as a propellant, and spray in just the right amount to create an explosive mixture with the air," explained Kelly. "Give the sparker a twirl, and it will shoot your potato 300 to 400 feet. It's quite impressive.

"I bring it to class because everything in here - the PVC, the butane, the potato - is organic chemistry."

Kelly's charge is to engage 250 students in what traditionally has been considered one of the most difficult of undergraduate subjects.

"Many start class thinking it's going to be an ordeal," he said. "They find out it's hard work, but it doesn't have to be impossible."

His teaching strategy includes drawing connections to the real world through the copious use of demonstrations.

One of his favorites involves week-old mackerel. He uses the fish in a lesson on the way certain ammonia-derived organic compounds called amines can be neutralized by acids.

"Amines have distinctive smells that are said to be fishy," he said. "To communicate that up close and personal, I take a fish that's been sitting in the car for a while till it's nice and ripe, set it out on a bed of lettuce, and pass it around the room."

Next he passes out lemons and invites students to squeeze away. "Amines are what are called bases, and they are neutralized by acids. Fish is usually served with lemon, which is full of citric acid. Squeezing lemon neutralizes the amines and kills the smell."

The first thing in Kelly's office that catches the eye - even before the models of molecules and the tippy birds - is a cork board well over six feet high that stretches from tabletop to ceiling and is covered with the photos of all 250 students in his organic chemistry class.

He brings a couple of pages of the pictures to class each day so he can call on students by name. The students, of course, don't know whose pictures he's brought on a given day, so they come to class prepared to hear their names called.

"I tell them that if they raise their hands when they know the answer, I won't call on them when they don't," he said, with a smile.

In 35 years on the faculty at Boston College, Kelly figures, he has taught upward of 3,000 students. Many have gone on to careers as physicians. Some have become scientists. One, Dennis Curran '75, an organic chemist at the University of Pittsburgh, received a BC Alumni Achievement Award in Science in 2000.

That students voted him Teacher of the Year makes the award special, said Kelly. "There's something very satisfying about teaching," he said. "You make a difference in somebody's life being a teacher."

This year's list of Phi Beta Kappa inductees is available on-line.

top of page