Molecule by Molecule

Chemistry Professor Explains the Molecular World in Three Successful Chemistry Texts

Niva Tro

Niva Tro loves teaching chemistry, but he wasn’t satisfied with the textbooks available for college courses. So he started writing his own. His first venture, “Chemistry in Focus: A Molecular View of Our World” (Thomson, 2001), has reached its fourth edition. Students at more than 70 colleges and universities use the book in classes for non-majors. Emphasizing the role of the molecular world in daily life, Niva demonstrates the relevance of chemistry by covering issues such as global warming, acid rain and drugs.

The success of this book encouraged Niva to produce a second work, “Introductory Chemistry” (Prentice Hall, 2006). In use at more than 220 institutions, the text is the best-selling volume for preparatory chemistry. He discovered the need for such a book when he taught at Pepperdine; Westmont doesn’t offer this kind of class. As he did in the earlier book, Niva ties chemistry to current events and helps students understand the value of mastering scientific concepts. Clear writing and clever graphics make the text appealing.

Niva next spent four years completing a general chemistry book for advanced students. To date, more than 70 schools plan to incorporate “Chemistry: A Molecular Approach” (Prentice Hall, 2008) into their classes next fall. Just released in the spring of 2007, the text has drawn strong and immediate interest. Niva attempts to meet the needs of both faculty and students by covering complex material in depth while striving to make it as easy to grasp as possible.

“I set the bar high and then gave students a lot of help in mastering the content,” he says. “With support, they can reach a higher level of understanding.”

He accomplishes this goal by the way he presents information. Relying on a variety of visual images, he structures them to help students solve problems step by step, teaching them how to reason. Illustrations consistently portray matter in three ways: the macroscopic (what we can see), the molecular (which is invisible to us), and the symbolic (how chemists represent the molecular world).

Online resources provide additional assistance. Students can find tutoring, do homework assignments and take tests through a Web site, which will tell them how long they spent on each problem and keep track of common mistakes.

Niva had a lot of help in creating the text. Nine different Westmont students worked with him, researching and testing problems. The publisher held focus groups for professors and students throughout the country to evaluate the approach and the problems.

Until three years ago, Niva also conducted research in surface chemistry. For now, he has put his lab work on the back burner, focusing on keeping the three volumes updated. Niva quotes C.S. Lewis to explain his passion for producing texts. “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects,” Lewis said. “It is not the books on Christianity that will really trouble [the materialist]. But, he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap, popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.” Niva is pleased to do something he enjoys so much. “I can combine my love for chemistry, my love for teaching and my love for writing,” he says.

His commitment to teaching and his determination to make chemistry appealing and understandable have contributed to the success of the books. He developed his interest in the subject as a student at Westmont, and his professors encouraged him to go to graduate school, where he earned a doctorate in chemistry at Stanford and did post-doctoral research at UC Berkeley. He returned to campus in 1990 as a professor, and has won the Teacher of the Year award twice (1994 and 2001) and received the Faculty Research Award (1996). “I appreciate being at Westmont, which places so much value on teaching students,” he says.

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