Long Beach State University chemistry professor Stephen Mezyk received the California State University's Wang Family Excellence Award in recognition of his work to help students understand chemistry and develop outstanding careers.
Mezyk was recognized in the category of Outstanding Faculty Innovator in Student Success during the California State University Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22. A member of the Long Beach campus' faculty since 2001, Mezyk's methods have resulted in significantly higher passing rates for undergraduates enrolled in the campus’ general and physical chemistry courses.
"Student success is at the heart of all of Dr. Mezyk's work," President Jane Close Conoley said. "He has created a unique pathway for students to persist and excel in science majors and distinguish themselves after graduation."
The Wang Family Excellence Award comes with a $20,000 prize, and five such awards are given each year across all California State University campuses. Mezyk is the first member of the Long Beach campus to win the award since 2001.
"Dr. Mezyk is a leader in transforming students' lives by giving them outstanding research experiences," said Curtis Bennett, Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "Under his guidance, students participate in solving real-world problems with scientific leaders across the country. The College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics integrates undergraduate research into student learning to ensure success, and Dr. Mezyk takes that commitment to another level."
Mezyk's general chemistry class can have as many as 200 students sitting inside a lecture hall at a time, and his "Watch One, Do One" method keeps everyone involved. He demonstrates how to solve a chemistry problem before challenging the entire class to complete a similar task. He then walks among the students, speaking and providing tips to as many of them as possible.
"When a student watches me do a problem on the board, or in PowerPoint, it's very passive. They sit and watch and say 'Oh, that makes sense.' It's only when they are doing a problem themselves that they realize it's not easy," Mezyk said. "Then, if I can individually point out what they are missing, it's a eureka! moment as they get what I was trying to say all along. It's very rewarding to see that moment too. It makes my job worthwhile."
He also leads a research group continuously involving 10 to 15 students — three-quarters of whom have been underrepresented in STEM fields. The research group has researched such topics as varied as increasing the scientific understanding of cancer-causing chemicals, how radiation affects the processes of recycling nuclear waste, and how to create drinking water out of wastewater contaminated by chemicals.
"They are becoming the next generation of scientific and professional leaders that we need. It's amazing to see students who I helped when they were struggling with a general chemistry concept ultimately graduate with a Ph.D., and then become academics themselves. Of course, they have to learn to work hard, think critically, listen to others, and make some informed hard choices, but those who get it, they do well," he said.
Mezyk has also overseen the development of more than 100 peer-reviewed articles and over 250 conference presentations featuring student co-authors.
Photo credit: Long Beach State University Public Affairs