Profile: David Harpp’s master class

Posted on Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An innovative teacher, David harpp is also renowned for his expertise in academic integrity, helping develop an exam system at McGill that all but eliminates cheating. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

Editor’s Note: This past Monday at Fall Convocation, David Harpp became the first recipient of McGill’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Leadership in Learning. Now in his fifth decade at McGill, Harpp is one of the University’s iconic professors. His innovative spirit and relentless desire to create a better classroom environment has changed the way we teach and learn at McGill.

David Harpp believes in keeping things simple, whether it is demystifying the hidden world of chemistry using an old 35 mm camera and homemade slides or paring down his philosophy on professional self-evaluation with a single phrase – “would I want to be a student in my class?”

Harpp has been asking that question of himself for 44 years, ever since he first strode into Leacock 132 as a rookie chemistry professor with 500 pairs of undergraduate eyes looking down at him for guidance – and, if possible, a certain degree of entertainment.

Not a firm believer in endless note-taking as an effective method to transfer knowledge (“I wasn’t very enamoured with taking notes when I was a student, so why should I push others to do it?”), Harpp thought visual teaching aids were the most effective way to supplement learning.

But in those early days, the cavernous amphitheatre presented a huge challenge in this regard. “The blackboard was too small to be of much use and the room was too huge for me to stand there with tiny plastic models of molecules,” said Harpp.

Instead, he turned to the ubiquitous overhead projector for his initial year and, for the next version of the course, he created homemade slides of molecules that he had prepared using a 35- mm camera fitted with a macro lens. It was a trick he had gleaned from his father, a forester who often used slides to illustrate his public lectures on plant disease. “Most people are very visual and it was a simple way to help them retain knowledge,” said Harpp.

And while the students were well served by his slide shows, Harpp wanted more. In 1968, he sat in on a lecture touting the virtues of new “electronic classrooms” and watched as the presenter used a technique called lap dissolve on a pair of overhead projectors to toggle back and forth between slides. Like an old-fashioned flip book, this animation technique gave the impression of movement. “It was the moment that changed my life,” said Harpp without hyperbole.

Moment of epiphany

Realizing he could employ the same inexpensive technique to animate molecular movement for his students, Harpp redoubled his slide-making efforts. Over the ensuing decades, he would transform thousands of pictures into homemade glass-mounted slides, shaving each one or adding thin layers of tape so that the animation was as precise – and jiggle-free – as possible.

“If someone says ‘What’s pole vaulting?’ you show them a movie,” said Harpp. “But if you want to really teach them, you break it down with stop action – which is what lap dissolve really is. Then they will say ‘Oh, the hand twists right there – I didn’t see that before.’”

Although lap dissolve had been around as a cinematic technique for a long time, it was virtually unknown in the classroom setting. More than 40 years after first unveiling it to an undergraduate class, Harpp remembers the first viewing like it was yesterday.

“I was showing my class how a steroid molecule built up and I was so excited to be able to click the slides by remote,” said Harpp. “People started applauding immediately. Not an ovation, but I could tell they were almost as excited as me.”

For the naysayers who would suggest Harpp might be exaggerating the enthusiasm with which his students responded, there is an audio recording of the lecture, applause and all. Even back in the 1960s, Harpp meticulously captured his lectures on a simple tape recorder. “When you put that much time into preparing a class presentation, it seems unreasonable that it should just evaporate into the ether,” he said.

Putting the COOL in school

From basic audio recordings, Harpp moved to videotaping lectures, eventually spawning COOL (COurses OnLine) McGill – a repository of captured classes and lectures and an essential tool in the modern learning process at McGill. Today, more than 300 courses are so recorded for the benefit of students who either missed a class or need to review or clarify material.

Despite a standout research career that has seen him publish more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, Harpp is hardwired to teach, whether it be at McGill or beyond the Roddick Gates. From 1980-2003, he teamed up with colleagues Joe Schwarcz and Ariel Fenster to develop and deliver a series of 70 public lectures on chemistry – a prototype of McGill’s now-famous Mini lecture franchise.

In 1999, the trio established the Office for Science and Society, designed to disseminate up-to-date information on everything from food and medications to cosmetics and general health.

When asked how long he wants to teach, the indefatigable Harpp laughed. “Well, I don’t want to be found expired over a lectern – that would be traumatic for all parties,” he said “But right now I’m having more fun than ever. I’m not planning on going anywhere soon.”

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