When Professor of Chemistry Shannon Lieb was in high school, he remembers telling his geometry teacher after class that he didn’t fully understand that day’s lecture. His teacher’s response was, “Learning starts with confusion.”
That statement left an impact on Lieb, so much so that he used it as a foundation for his own teaching for the last 39 years at Butler.
“I’ve always kept that idea in mind, and I’ve added to it as well,” said Lieb, who officially retired in December. “Now I tell my students: Learning starts with confusion; those who don’t make mistakes have never tried, and those who keep making mistakes haven’t learned.”
Lieb’s classes, like General Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, are filled with college-level mathematics and science concepts. It is easy to believe students would make mistakes and learn from their confusion. He said it’s easy to get confused. For some students, simply turning a table sideways presents a whole new problem if they’ve only been focusing on memorization.
“My primary push is to get students to think about how to approach a problem, not simply fill in the boxes,” he said.
Lieb’s dedication to student learning and understanding has been demonstrated in more ways than just in his classes. He has mentored two Master’s thesis students and 30-plus undergraduate research projects, starting with the origin of the Butler Summer Institute program in the early 1990, and he was the first faculty member in the sciences to incorporate Writing Across the Curriculum in the Physical Chemistry laboratory.
“I found that students who don’t know how to write, their way of expressing mathematics isn’t all that great,” he said. “I remember one of my first-year students said to me, ‘Well, sciences aren’t creative.’ She was thinking of writing music, writing plays, etc. But science is the same way. There’s obviously some place at which the path splits, but fundamentally it’s a creative process, whether it’s sciences, mathematics, English literature, or performance.”
Although he’s officially retired, Lieb is still hard at work teaching two physics labs and working with a student doing research during the spring 2018 semester.
Lieb said he considers his greatest achievement to be the impact he’s had on the education of many students during his years at Butler.
“I am most proud of the successes of students that I have had in class,” he said. “I’ve had the privilege of witnessing students succeed who had all odds stacked against them, and I’ve seen some truly remarkable stories.”
He shared a note from Annie Search ’95, one of his former students, who wrote: “Thanks so much for your never-ending patience, kindness, and sense of humor. I could not have gotten through college without you.”
Lieb isn’t sure what he’ll do when the semester ends in April when he’s fully retired. Perhaps he’ll work on an old Volkswagen that he drove for a number of years. He’s already rebuilt the engine twice. He’ll definitely watch movies with his wife, Sue, work on his carpentry, and continue to volunteer with animal rescue.
Being the continuous learner he is, he’ll find something to keep himself occupied. For now, Lieb is following Snoopy’s advice, which is also the signature line on his emails: “Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Look to tomorrow. Rest this afternoon.”