Dr. Tamara Freeman shares the magic of chemistry with her students
June 13, 2022
Associate Professor of Teaching
Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
PhD, UBC Vancouver
Bachelor of Science, University of Victoria
“At the end of my course, it’s not about how much chemistry the students know, but the fact they care about chemistry and what it can do.”
AS FAR BACK AS SHE CAN REMEMBER, Dr. Tamara Freeman has loved science. An early experiment as a toddler had her trying to figure out how a heart worked, as she pumped water between her palms. In Grade 10, when the general topic of science was expanded into areas like biology and physics, it was chemistry that captured Dr. Freeman’s imagination.
“When we started doing hands-on experiments, I would be right at the front of the classroom,” says Dr. Freeman, now an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Department of Chemistry. “Watching the colours of lemon and cabbage juices change as they were mixed in a simple pH indicator experiment; it was just magical to me.”
Her fascination with chemistry led Dr. Freeman to a Bachelor of Science in her hometown at the University of Victoria and a PhD at UBC Vancouver, where she discovered how much she enjoyed the teaching aspects of chemistry.
This awareness, combined with some serendipity, put Dr. Freeman on the road to teaching. She is now the first-year coordinator of lectures and laboratories at UBC Okanagan, an educator in first- and second-year chemistry courses and the Department of Chemistry’s first and only member of UBC’s Educational Leadership faculty stream. Always a favourite with her students, she has endeavoured to keep that magic she first felt in high school alive and thriving in her classroom.
“I want people who don’t think chemistry is important to them—or wonder when they’ll ever use it in life—to get a little more excited about it, and the beauty of science. At the end of my course, it’s not about how much chemistry the students know, but the fact that they care about chemistry and what it can do.”
Dr. Freeman wears her passion for chemistry quite literally on her sleeve, as evidenced by the vibrant colours of her tie-dyed lab coat. And while she may make the drawing of Lewis structures seem like art class or encourage spontaneous in-person or virtual dance parties for her hundreds of students, there is method to her madness.
“There are things that students value in a professor externally, like charisma and showmanship. I think that comes from my background in community theatre. But I also care for my students. I genuinely want them to succeed. Empathy has been important over the past couple of years. I’ve shared my struggles with my students, let them know I’m human.”
Early in 2022, Dr. Freeman was awarded the Margaret-Ann Armour Award for Early Career Chemistry Education by the Chemical Institute of Canada. This award recognizes her outstanding contributions to undergraduate education in chemistry.
A first-year chemistry course is as much about learning how to be a university student as it is about chemistry. “Those classes are made up of a diverse group of future engineers, artists, and all sorts of students with all sorts of academic and career aspirations,” says Dr. Freeman. “Not many are there to be career chemists.”
With this in mind, she asked herself, “Who am I teaching? First-year or fourth-year students?” She saw the potential to re-examine what the course content should be for a general chemistry course.
In collaboration with UBC Okanagan’s science librarians, Dr. Freeman implemented an online module where students learn the fundamentals of research from the most basic “what does peer review mean?” to proper source citation and how to write a formal term report. “This information is of value to all students embarking on their academic career,” she says, “but traditionally there hasn’t been room for it in the curriculum. Together we made it work.”
In addition to her changes to the first-year chemistry curriculum, Dr. Freeman was the faculty lead for UBC Okanagan’s LearnSmart program, which provided students with the knowledge, resources and strategies to achieve their academic goals. Supported by the Office of the Provost, it is housed in the Learning Hub. “We found that students had positive gains in their attitudes towards studying through their understanding of the resources available to them on campus,” says Dr. Freeman.
Perhaps one of Dr. Freeman’s most high-profile contributions to UBC Okanagan and the surrounding community is her popular Chembassador Chemistry Outreach Program. Here, a group of student volunteers supervised by Dr. Freeman engage the chemistry uninitiated in open house events exploring hands-on activities and the occasional explosive demonstration.
“Chemistry outreach is so important. I want to get people of all ages excited about things that are important to them, whether they know it or not.” Dr. Freeman says. “Like the fact that bananas are made up of just as many unpronounceable chemicals as junk food. We strive to communicate what we know about the world in a language that everyone can understand and in topics they care about.”
When not working, you might find Dr. Freeman curled up with a book or taking advantage of the Okanagan outdoors as she and her husband share the joys of camping and kayaking with their young children.
“Kelowna’s outdoor experience is wonderful in all its seasons,” she says.
“What I love about UBC Okanagan is that we have the big UBC name, but we’re on a campus where it’s easy to make connections. In my job, what could be better than being part of a world-renowned university on a campus where students know me by my first name?”