Virginia Tech Magazine
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Patricia Amateis: Good chemistry

Audio by Megan Donald

Amateis on ...
There was one drop-out in Patricia Amateis' General Chemistry class on Nov. 1, 2010—a pumpkin.

Run down after a hard night of trick-or-treating, the pumpkin bid its farewells during a classroom experiment using hydrogen peroxide and dish detergent.

It was an odd juxtaposition: an ugly creature emitting steam from its top and dripping foam from its smile, alongside an articulate and professional faculty member at the front of the classroom.

The pumpkin's demise is just one example of Amateis' engaging, no-nonsense style and quiet sense of humor, traits that make her class one of the first to fill during registration each semester and keep nonmajors engaged in topics such as valence shell electron pair repulsion theory.

Amateis (Ph.D. chemistry '84), a 26-year teaching veteran, was recognized last year with a William E. Wine Achievement Award for excellence in teaching, one of the highest teaching honors bestowed by the university. She was cited for developing the department's general chemistry curriculum and her long record of consistently superior course evaluations from students.

"Working with students is the best part of teaching," Amateis said. "My favorite thing is when they appreciate chemistry even when they aren't particularly good at it."

More than 2,000 students enroll in the general chemistry program each semester. As well as teaching general chemistry, Amateis coordinates graduate teaching assistants for the large General Chemistry class that numbers several hundred students. Along with Associate Professor Emeritus Jim Viers, she developed a unique recitation program that enables upperclassmen to oversee smaller groups of students once a week to help keep chemistry from being what she calls a "spectator sport."

Polished and organized, Amateis overcomes the often-daunting challenge of maintaining student motivation and attention in a large lecture class. And she does so without compromising content.

"Patricia is the heart and soul of this program," said Joe Merola, professor of chemistry and former department chair. "In exit interviews, graduating seniors invariably mention her as one of the best teachers they encountered during their time at Virginia Tech."

"I'm not sure what makes me a good teacher," Amateis said. "I really like the subject, and I really like the students. They pick up on my enthusiasm." She noted that her philosophy is to explain things the way she would want them explained to her.

Chemistry is a hard subject, Amateis admits readily. She is also quick to add that students who devote time to the class do well in it. "I tell my students that luck doesn't get you through this class or most anything else in life," she said. "It's about getting out there and doing the work."

On course evaluations, her students consistently agree. "Dr. Amateis is a professor who wants everyone to succeed," wrote Chris Wolberg, a junior biochemistry major from Alexandria, Va. "Her patience with students who are having trouble makes her an excellent teacher."

Colleagues also consider her as one of the best. "I was struck immediately by Patricia's control over such a large class," said chemistry Professor T. Daniel Crawford. "It was clear that she had gained the students' respect early in the semester, and they responded immediately to her lead to quiet the room for the start of class. This is no small achievement."

Amateis also advises her students to have a passion outside of academics. Her own interests include playing music in a steel-drum band, a hobby she took up two years ago when her youngest child left for college. A far cry from what some might call the torture of chemical equations, the steel drum gives her another activity in which to excel.

"I've always been a hard worker, and whatever I do, I want to do well, or at least to the best of my ability."

Catherine Doss is the communications manager for the College of Science.

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Department of Chemistry


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Winter 2010-11
Patricia Amateis, associate professor and director of general chemistry in the College of Science at Virginia Tech
• Associate professor and director of general chemistry in the College of Science
• Coordinates more than 100 freshman chemistry labs
• Oversees more than 30 graduate teaching assistants as lab instructors
• Overall student-evaluation scores: 3.86 out of a possible 4.0
• Bachelor's degree in education from Concord College; Ph.D. in chemistry from Virginia Tech

• William E. Wine Achievement
Award, 2010
• Sporn Award for Excellence in
Undergraduate Teaching, 1994
• Alumni Teaching Award, 2002
• Member of Virginia Tech Academy
of Teaching Excellence
• Office of Residence Life Student
Programs Division Favorite Faculty Award, 2006, 2007, and 2009
• Student Alumni Associates Students' Choice Award, 2004 and 2005
• Wrote comprehensive laboratory manual published by Hayden-McNeil
• Routinely speaks and gives chemistry demonstrations to schools and civic groups