Illustration by Adam Cruft

John Hutchinson has witnessed many of Rice’s evolutions and challenges since he joined the chemistry department in 1983. Now, as dean of undergraduates, he has helped usher the students — and their families — through one of the biggest natural disasters that Houston has ever seen: Hurricane Harvey. 

We sat down with Hutch (as he’s affectionately known) in the aftermath of the crisis to talk about how Rice’s student body weathered the storm as well as more quotidian topics, such as teaching chemistry and the research he’s conducting on the nature of learning itself. For the
full interview, please go to

Crisis Communications

My primary role during Harvey was to make sure that students knew what they needed to do and where they needed to be, so that during the significant parts of the storm, we could be comfortable that everybody was safe and in the right place. That involved a lot of work with the college magisters, student presidents, Housing and Dining and RUPD [Rice University Police Department] to create clear lines of communication at all points during the storm.

There’s Never Too Much Information

I tried to maintain good lines of communication with the extended Rice families who were not in Houston and not necessarily familiar with the city. Because the storm hit at the end of the first week of classes, there were a large number of students who had only been here for two weeks: O-Week and the first week of classes. Therefore, there were many parents and other family members not familiar with Houston — our geography, locales, bayou system, the distance from Houston to Corpus Christi, Victoria, Galveston or Beaumont — and who would not be able to interpret news broadcasts in terms of what was going on at Rice. So they needed very specific information about what was happening on campus as often as they could hear it.

Phone Home, Please

To a certain extent, I was also trying to facilitate communication between students and their families so the students could let their families know, “Here’s where I am and here’s what I’m doing,” and have a consistent message from the university to help reinforce that.

The Everyday Heroes

Honestly, the bulk of the work during the storm was done by the support staff — the kitchen staff, the chefs and their staffs, the custodial staff, the maintenance staff, and maybe first and foremost RUPD — who were doing the really hard work of making sure that all the services were in place so that our students had everything they needed.

Being Realistic

There was no point in sending out a message that everything was fine when people could see on TV for themselves that Houston was in crisis. It was important for us to acknowledge that at every step of the way. The fact that Rice came through this okay did not mean we were okay, because we depend on the city of Houston; we’re part of the city. If Houston is in crisis, then we’re in crisis.

Daily Ground Truthing

I frequently walked back and forth across campus to take a few pictures to post so people could see where their sons and daughters were, not the pictures they were seeing on TV. That is not to diminish the impact on the city, but rather to have the concern placed where it needed to be, which is not, “Is my son okay? Is my daughter okay?” but rather, “My son and my daughter are okay. I’m worried about the city.” That there are hundreds of thousands of people out in the city who are being severely harmed by this storm, and I can simultaneously be relieved that my son or daughter is not one of them while sending resources to support the people who truly are desperately in need.

A Culture of Care, Writ Larger

[Since the storm], our students have a much greater sense of place in the world and the importance of community. We depend on each other here on campus, and therefore we respect and appreciate each other. The interdependence of Rice with our city is better understood. These are hard lessons. But they’re really important lessons because I think there is a greater mutual understanding of that interrelatedness than I have seen before. And I think it will last.

On Teaching (extended version from print issue)

Banishing the Classroom Lecture

Active learning, by and large, means not just sitting and listening to a lecture. The idea is that students learn new material by constructing it for themselves by experience or through reasoning, through their own intellectual development. In an active learning environment, the job of the instructor is not to convey information, but to create an environment in which that instruction takes place. There are lots of ways to do that.

Socrates and Chemistry

For decades, I have taught Socratically. That’s a form of active learning. Active learning is not a new idea, but we have come to understand it much better through studies of educational psychology and neuroscience and what’s going on during those active learning sessions.

Flipping the Classroom

When you were an undergraduate, long before you heard the term “flipping the classroom,” you took classes where you had to read a play, poetry or a short story and come prepared to talk about it in class. That’s a flipped classroom. Then teachers started videoing lectures, and people got excited because they said that a flipped classroom means watching the videoed lecture before discussing it in class. It’s no different from telling people to read before they come to class; it’s telling people to watch something before they come to class instead.

Can You Super-Size It?

My wife, Paula, and I teach a [critical thinking] class that has 15 people in it. The whole class is active learning. We give reading assignments, Paula and I may do a small presentation in class and then start a discussion. But what if you have 100 people? The real key is in figuring out how you structure those conversations, particularly if you have a really large class. So what we added at Rice is this experiment based on work developed elsewhere. We call it Student-Centered Active Learning at Rice, or SCAL@R. All that means is that after people have watched a video or read a book, they then go to class and have conversations or answer questions together, work problem sets together.

How We Got Here

In 2011, we organized a conference on research and innovation in teaching in natural sciences and engineering. We brought in a lead innovator in the area who talked about Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs, or SCALE-UP. During the conference, we even sat around tables and did some SCALE-UP exercises. Within weeks, Rice faculty got together to figure out how we could [teach this way]. We wanted to try it, but we didn’t have any classrooms where we could do this. So we first outfitted Jones Commons and Lovett Commons to serve as classrooms like this, because [the active learning] classroom looks more like a dining room than a lecture hall. Just round tables with people sitting around. We got a couple of other rooms converted and then a big room in Brockman Hall was converted into this style. People started teaching this way. It got really good feedback.

Breaking Down Walls, Literally

In Rayzor Hall on the first floor, they broke walls down and filled the room with tables. And it’s all designed around this idea of student-centered active learning. Both of those words are important. It’s active in the sense that you have to be doing something, and the focal point of the learning is the student, not the instructor.

Humanities Lesson

There are quite a few classes taught this way now. When I’ve written about this, I say that we’re really just grafting over approaches that have been used for centuries in other subjects. I’m going to quote Alex Byrd [associate professor of history]. He said to me one day, “You know this thing you guys call student-centered active learning? In the humanities, we just call that teaching.” So the truth of the matter is that these are approaches that have been used in the humanities forever.

From SCAL@R to Backflips

In chemistry, Lesa Tran Lu ’07 [the Wiess Instructor of Chemistry] and I have experimented with something we call “backflipping.” We have the students read before coming to class, a very traditional method. We have conversations during class in these SCAL@R arrangements, and then we give them the video lecture afterward, as a way of doing summation on what was learned during the reading and the discussion.

Which Teaching Method Is the Best?

We’re conducting an experiment this semester to compare two different styles of active learning: the SCAL@R format, which Lesa is teaching, and the Socratic format, which I’m teaching. Some of our research suggests to us that the Socratic format is a better form of active learning than the SCAL@R format. We’re trying to figure out if that’s true or not — we’re collecting a lot of data.

Active, Silent Types in the Classroom

One demographic that we’re really interested in is “silent students versus vocal students.”

If you have 100 people in a class, our data tell us that over the course of a semester, one-third of the people in the class will never participate in the conversation. So the question is, if you have an active classroom, and you have one-third of the students who don’t seem to be participating in the active classroom, are they benefitting? We have data where we can prove that, yes, in fact, they are benefitting because they are participating in the conversation; they are just doing it in their heads. They’re attempting to answer every question that’s being asked, but silently. They’re listening to the answers that other people are giving and comparing them to their own, silently. Fully active, but silent. So we asked ourselves, “What’s the best active learning environment for them to be in?”

Learning About Learning Anxieties

Making somebody speak who doesn’t want to speak may actually generate all kinds of counterproductive anxieties that interfere with the learning process. We’ve done postsemester interviews with students to find out how they reacted [to an active learning environment]. Were you silent or were you vocal? Do you think that affected how much you learned? It’s not just comparing their test scores; we’re also asking them. I have two postdocs and a research associate who do the statistical analyses and some of the focus groups. So we have tons of data — performance, attitudes, personal responses, interviews. We do lots of research on the class to understand the various impacts on people.

Putting People on the Spot

The most fascinating observation is that the students find the SCAL@R classroom stressful. We hadn’t known that going in. They are worried that they feel like they are being assessed during the SCAL@R activities. They feel like they’re on the spot. And of course being on the spot can be a learning environment — people learn by taking tests, for example — but it’s also intensely stressful, and stress can actually impede your cognition. That’s why we’re doing this analysis now, to try to understand that balance between putting people on the spot so they can learn something and not putting so much stress on them that it interferes with their learning. That’s why we’re running the experiment this semester. We’ve dug pretty deep into this stuff.

Polishing the Apple

We created an experimental classroom in the Center for Teaching Excellence. It’s in Herring Hall in the old library, which then was the Digital Media Commons. When the Digital Media Commons moved to Fondren Library, the university allocated that space to the Center for Teaching Excellence and Program in Writing and Communication to develop an experimental classroom. The object of this is to have a room that is completely reconfigurable into whatever format you want and specifically reserved for faculty who want to experiment with some new approach to teaching.

Permission to Experiment Granted

The call went out recently for any faculty member who would like to teach an experimental course. And that’s the next phase of this, to move beyond just two forms of teaching — lecture and SCAL@R — and into whatever approaches that Rice faculty can think of that seem like a good approach, and then to run some experiments and find out if this is better or worse. That’s what we’re doing in chemistry right now. It’s pretty fun.

— Interview conducted by Jenny Rozelle ’00