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Deon Miles '97: Think About the Human Aspect

Dr. Deon Miles ’97 has been a member of the faculty at Sewanee, the University of the South, since 2002, where his current course offerings include Instrumental Analysis, General Chemistry, Advanced Topics in Analytical Chemistry, Solution and Solid-State Chemistry, and the Science of Food and Cooking.

He talks about teaching, his experiences in the classroom and lab, and his path from Gary, Indiana, to a tenured professorship atop the Cumberland Plateau. 

Q: Were you always interested in chemistry?

Miles: No, and it’s probably a story that a lot of students have. I started out to be a doctor and intended to be a biology major. The class that got me out of the biology track was genetics. I really did not enjoy it. At the same time during my sophomore year, I was taking a chemistry class, and found that material to be more interesting. I always had a love for math and science. Those two fields merged well in chemistry. The challenge in starting a chemistry major my sophomore year was how to get it done. Thankfully, the professors were very helpful in navigating that, especially Dr. (David) Phillips, and I got it done in three years.

Dr. Deon Miles '97 has taught chemistry at the University of the South since 2002.Q: As you departed Wabash 1997, did you feel prepared for graduate school? 

DM: The time at Wabash was really important. Learning how to study, not only with peers, but also on my own, to develop that hunger for knowledge, to develop those problem-solving skills, was essential. Those skills weren’t fully developed on day one. The molding, all that experience, helped get me to where I was ready and prepared for graduate school.

Q: What was the fall 2020 semester like for you? How did you deal with labs and the normal teaching responsibilities?

DM: I saw COVID-19 as more of an opportunity. One of the things that I did in preparation for my analytical chemistry course was to make sure students could still get a lab experience, regardless of where they were. You can record lectures, but it was the hands-on lab I was most concerned about. What I did starting in April 2020 was ask, ‘How can we design a laboratory experience that a student can do right in their home kitchen? How can we give them an analytical chemistry experience in their homes, and do it safely?’ I tried very carefully to think about the kind of big picture experiments and concepts we could cover safely. We ended up coming up with seven experiments that could be done at home, and then adding three dry lab experiences – things that didn’t need reagents or equipment. Once finished, you then could dump them down the drain or throw things in the trash. We called them ‘Lab in a Box.’ We actually used these in the labs when the students returned.

I also flipped my classroom. We didn’t know if we would have students that would have to quarantine for two weeks, so I wondered how they would get the lecture content? I redesigned and recorded all my lectures, putting them in more digestible chunks. I did that throughout the semester. It was a good experience. I’m going to continue to do that kind of going forward because it gives me the opportunity to do more things in class that I didn’t have the opportunity to do before because of the lecture content.

Q: Did you find it harder to engage with your students?

DM: There were moments, yes, when it was more challenging to stay engaged with the students. Thankfully, all my students this past semester were in person. Because I flipped the classroom, I would come in and ask if there were any questions. A lot of times there were, but there were times I didn’t have another activity planned, so we would meet, go over questions, and 10-15 minutes later, we were leaving.

We were so focused on physical distancing and not spending a lot of time together. All those informal interactions went away. Those informal interactions are the things I missed the most.

Q: Did you hear from your students about mental health concerns, or perhaps sense moments where questions unrelated to chemistry might alleviate some stress?

DM: Those moments happened one-on-one. I’m in my 19th year as a professor. I can see when a student wants to have that kind of conversation. They put their things away slowly, they linger a little bit. Everybody else is running out of the class. I had opportunities to ask, ‘how are things going?’ A student might have needed a couple of more days to do a lab report after staring at the same four walls for the last three days. We recognized that and we got through the semester.

Q: Did some of those informal conversations – and the questions that were on students’ minds outside of class – allow you to talk of chemistry in timely, topical, or different ways?

DM: When we think about chemistry, we don’t necessarily think about social justice. It’s almost like, “just stick with atoms and molecules and then move on.” But that’s not entirely true. I’ve tried to lead by example and have started to incorporate some aspects of social justice in my classes. When you think about social justice and think about this from a chemistry perspective, it’s about getting students to think beyond their immediate circles of influence. How do you do that with chemistry?

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a great example. What happened with the lead pipes? How did the water get lead in it? From an analytical chemistry perspective, we can talk about the instruments that are used to detect the lead. We can also talk about the human side of it. We can talk about the impact of lead water on children under the age of six and how it slows development in a number of ways. That’s one way analytical chemistry can enter into conversations about social change. I want my colleagues to find more examples and see how we can incorporate those into our courses. We still get the chemistry, but let’s think about the human aspect as well.

For more stories about alumni making a difference in education, check out the upcoming issue of the Wabash Magazine, available in early July.