Janice Alexander
Janice Alexander
Photo Credit: Brenda Ahearn

FVCC professor returns from Australia projects

By RYAN MURRAY/Daily Inter Lake, Monday, March 9, 2015

Photo credit: Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake

After spending six months transforming a massive Australian university, a Flathead Valley Community College professor said returning to the comparably tiny Flathead Valley was a little bit of reverse culture shock.

Janice Alexander, a chemistry, forensic science and math professor, took a sabbatical to radically shift how the University of Technology, Sydney approached students’ attitudes and learning methods.

“I’ve been here since 1994 and it’s the first time I’ve applied for a sabbatical,” she said. “It was a transition. UT Sydney is a full university, with undergraduate, graduate and doctorate programs. It has 38,000 students, all the words they use are different. It was great.”

Alexander’s partner to help change the massive school was Tony Baker, the head of school (the equivalent of a dean in the United States) of chemistry and forensic science.

The two will travel to Denver in a little over a week to report the findings of their project to the 249th annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver.

“It was actually three projects in one,” Alexander said. “One of the things we’ve done here since the mid-90s was to get students in first-year chemistry to use modern instruments. Traditionally that isn’t done before junior year in college. In chemistry, modern instrumentation is expensive.”

Upgrading the instruments was one prong of the project. The university bought a bench-top nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy machine for $40,000. The machines analyze the chemical makeup of a substance and allow students to quickly identify just what a material is made of. They can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The next part was using hardware and software in the lab,” Alexander said. “We’ve been using digital readings for a long time now. They were using metal probes and reading the results. The fact that we were using this technology in the lab and they weren’t surprised the head of school. We needed to modernize how data is gathered in chemistry labs.”

Instead of students reading the lines on a thermometer or gauging for themselves the light readings in a spectrometer, the use of software and hardware in the lab would feed into accurate digital readings, making gathering data considerably easier for the Aussies.

The last part of the six-month project was one Alexander wanted to bring back to the states and use for her own courses.

“We incorporated in the classes a survey that measured students’ attitudes in chemistry,” Alexander said. “It was looking at the results from different teaching methods and testing for emotional satisfaction and intellectual accessibility.”

The survey, a simple eight word pairs (easy/challenging, fun/boring, etc.), was an easy but effective way to establish a baseline for the many chemistry students at the university. Alexander hopes to implement a similar survey for her own students in the fall, so she can have a direct line to what students are thinking about her courses.

These three facets made up the bulk of Alexander’s trip to Sydney. She and Baker were pleased with the results.

“We were able to accomplish everything we wanted to,” Alexander said. “We learned a lot.”

Alexander grew up in Michigan, attended Michigan State University and obtained a double bachelor’s degree in chemistry and criminalistics. The latter was the forerunner to modern forensic science.

“There were just five programs for that in the country,” Alexander said. “It was before ‘C.S.I.’ popularized it. We were strange, weird people. The programs have changed so much.”

She got a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Virginia and came to Flathead Valley Community College 21 years ago.

She took her 14-year-old son to Australia and met her two older children while she was over there for Christmas.

“I was worried about him making friends at school,” Alexander said. “But he comes back the first day and said ‘Mom, Americans are cool!’ I didn’t worry much after that.”

While the culture shock from fairly homogeneous Northwest Montana to one of the most diverse cities in the world was considerable, the Alexander family had some pretty spectacular sights to help match Glacier National Park.

“We got to go snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef,” she said. “It was the one time we just got back on the platform and were speechless. I had so many amazing experiences.”

To send her off for the trip Down Under, her Flathead Valley Community College colleagues managed to procure a jar of vegemite (an Australian food paste made from yeast products). It wasn’t popular.

But no longer playing with wallabies and bell miner birds, Alexander is back to her role heading the chemistry and forensic science programs, as well as the spring semester of the pharmacy program.

“I prefer being back in a small area,” she said. “I was definitely happy to return. I loved the cultures, the food and I learned to walk on the left side of the road. I really got used to the beach. We went from 90 degree days to minus 10 here. But I’m glad to be home.”

For information on Alexander’s programs, call the admission office at 756-3847.