May 25, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 17

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    The Llewellyn John & Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

    D. Gale Johnson
    Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics

    By William Harms
    News Office [d. gale johnson] by perry paegelow

    D. Gale Johnson, who will receive a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, has influenced the lives of many University students. In addition to this teaching award, which will be bestowed on Johnson today, he also was the 1998 recipient of a Norman Maclean Faculty Award. The Maclean award recognizes emeritus or senior faculty members who have made outstanding contributions to student life at Chicago.

    A former Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences, Johnson also served as University Provost and has twice chaired the Department of Economics. Since his retirement, he has been the Director and Co-director of the College’s program in economics.

    Using lectures and discussions to teach his Chinese economy course, Johnson shares his firsthand knowledge of China with his College students. One of the nation’s leading experts on China’s economy, Johnson has regularly visited there since 1980. In his course, he discusses China’s progress following its departure from a classic model of planned economy to one that adopted some features of a market economy.

    “I try to integrate my observations in what we discuss so students can understand better the topics we’re covering,” said Johnson, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics.

    “What I’m trying to get across in the Chinese economy class is three main points: first, why the highly centralized and planned economy prior to 1980 was a failure; second, why the reforms that were instituted after 1980 have been so successful; and third, what problems still remain to be solved as there is a growing inequality between the various regions in the country and between urban and rural areas,” he said.

    Among the material Johnson weaves into the course are experiences he has had watching the Chinese transform their agricultural industry. As farmers were given more freedom in making decisions about planting and other issues, they also were able to produce more food. Similar changes in the manufacturing sector also have produced growth in the nation’s economy.

    “One of the things I tell my students about is a visit I made to an area where apparently the first experiment was done to do away with the collective farming system in 1978,” Johnson said. “About a dozen farmers who had been part of a commune divided up the land into family parcels and worked the land on that basis. Production went up 50 percent.

    “I also mention in class that in the Beijing Historical Museum, there is a document signed by these farmers saying they would take care of the children of their leader if he were arrested or sentenced to death as a result of their action. The document is signed in blood, with the farmers pricking their fingers and putting a thumb print on the agreement,” Johnson said.

    The textbook the students study is based on work performed by one of Johnson’s former students, Justin Yifu Lin (Ph.D., ’86), The China Miracle. Lin is a professor of economics at Peking University.

    “Ted Schultz and I met him on our first trip to China in 1980,” Johnson said. Schultz, a colleague on the faculty and a Nobel Prize-winning economist, was in China with Johnson to study the country’s agriculture and other aspects of its economy, and Lin was their interpreter.

    Johnson also teaches College students in an honors economics workshop for which students prepare a paper that is reviewed and rewritten throughout the year. He teaches the course with Allen Sanderson, Senior Lecturer in Economics.

    “What I enjoy about the honors course, and also my other class, is what I enjoy about teaching College students. I just like getting to know these students,” said Johnson. “I hear from them after they’ve left, and that’s something I find satisfying.”

    The goal of the honors course is to challenge students in their research and writing. “We expect them to write an article that is nearly of the quality of a published journal article.

    “They can pick any subject they want, but what I try to do is help them settle on something that is doable, something they can actually tackle and cover well,” he said. “We expect them to have work that is well-researched, well-written and has a fresh, original perspective.”

    During the weekly class sessions, Johnson and Sanderson listen to student presentations and offer ideas of ways in which the projects might be improved. Each paper goes through five to six drafts as it works its way through the discussions. economics workshop for which students prepare a paper that is reviewed and rewritten throughout the year. He teaches the course with Allen Sanderson, Senior Lecturer in Economics.

    “What I like is the observations the students themselves make of other students’ work. It shows that they also learn from one another,” he said.

    Laurens Mets Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology

    By Sharon Parmet
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    Laurens Mets’[laurens mets] by jason smith philosophy of student-centered teaching makes it easy to see why he was awarded a 2000 Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

    “Its hard for me to feel like a teacher because the process of education depends more on the students,” said Mets. “I’m just trying to guide their personal inquiries.”

    An expert on plant genetics, Mets, Associate Professor in Molecular Genetics & Cell Biology, teaches Cellular and Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering, undergraduate non-major courses, and Photosynthesis, an elective biology course. He gets the most satisfaction from teaching when he can change a student’s opinion of how one studies biology.

    “It’s common for students to think biology is all about memorization, and they’re surprised to find that it’s based more on logical analysis,” explained Mets. “The most rewarding part of teaching is giving students the basics of biology and then watching them use those underlying principles as their foundation for thinking about more complex ideas instead of just memorizing.”

    Mets’ current research project involves determining the genes and other proteins that make up the centromeres, or centers, of plant chromosomes. Centromeres allow each pair of chromosomes to be pulled to either side of a cell before it divides. Without them, genetic material would not equally divide.

    “If we can figure out what makes the centromere so special, it could have implications for creating artificial chromosomes that may have therapeutic value,” Mets said.

    Creating artificial centromeres may also give biologists another way to create genetically engineered food crops. Mets also is interested in genetically modifying algae to produce hydrogen, which can be used as fuel. “Hydrogen is a great energy source, because when you burn it, it produces water,” said Mets. “We’re using techniques to genetically modify algae to produce more hydrogen than usual.”

    Mets shares his interest in genetic engineering with his students. In his genetic engineering course, he asks students to think of a biological product that is not currently available. He then has them develop a plan to create that product through genetic engineering.

    “It’s a really great project for the students,” said Mets. “One student is working on making rice with more protein, another is working on putting vitamin A in potatoes and another on making a better smelling rose. Part of the lesson is that these things are hard, complicated, detailed and not guaranteed to work.”