Todd Gingrich is fascinated by the non-equilibrium chemical dynamics of theoretical chemistry.

He says people actually know a surprising amount of theoretical chemistry just based on what they learned in high school about atoms, bonds and how these chemical systems work. Theoreticians like Gingrich are simply building on the fundamental framework we use to understand these chemical systems.

In his first few years at Northwestern, he was focused on building up a research group and taught advanced classes with fewer students.

When he started teaching CHEM 171, a general inorganic chemistry course, Gingrich realized his presence on campus had skyrocketed. Every Fall Quarter, he’s the talk of the town on Fizz, the anonymous social app for college students.

Read on to learn about what it’s like to teach CHEM 171, Gingrich’s most recent backpacking trip and a surprising fact about him.

What do you want students to take away from your CHEM 171 course?

Most students who are taking Chemistry 171 have already had a pretty significant exposure to chemistry through high school. So my operating assumption is that the vast majority of students in my class actually have a pretty good handle on executing the algorithms that are asked of students in chemistry classes. And so it's my goal to break these algorithms, and try to break that without breaking the students.

I basically think of it as, this is the last chance for citizens of the world, of our democracy, to build some mental model of how it is that we think we know things. Why is it that people can say these things about bonds, about covalent bonds, about ionic bonds? Why should you believe these stories? What's the plausible picture of how a person could ever infer these types of things from systems? A big part of the answer to that story is that we shine light on things.

It sounds tough to teach first-years who aren’t used to that course depth.

It's been an interesting puzzle for me to confront of, “How do I convey the understanding that I have without the tools that are critical to my own understanding?” Namely, I can't use tools from linear algebra. I can't use tools from differential equations. I can't use things that I know from physics.

I have to come up with creative ways to inject some of the intuition without using or developing all of the tools. You can find students who feel frustrated in both directions, “I wish you did it more mathematically, I wish you did it less mathematically.” Yeah, that’s the class.

In Northwestern’s 2019 Faculty Spotlight interview, you said that you enjoy backpacking. What's the last trip that you went on?

I got married during COVID, and my wife had never gone on a backpacking trip before, which disturbed me a little bit because I reasoned that nobody in their right mind would ever let their children go backpacking if they themselves had not experienced it and become comfortable with it. So I essentially told-slash-asked my wife to do our honeymoon in national parks.

We flew to Las Vegas, and we went around the Utah national parks, and then we ended at the Grand Canyon. The last trip I did was a little two night backpacking trip with her on our honeymoon, going down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and then hiking back up.

What's one thing students don't know about you?

Some students don't seem to know that I actually don't have Fizz. Last fall, there was this thing Yik Yak, which was popular. I also did not have Yik Yak. But I heard enough people talking about it that I came to learn that I was being discussed on both platforms. And so in lecture, I often talk about the platforms, suggesting that I might read them. But I get all of this secondhand.

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