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lawrenceJohn Harkless, Ph.D.
October 2011

"Science is visual," says Dr. John Harkless, Associate Professor of Chemistry. That's why he was eager to try Prezi, a free-form, zooming presentation tool that allows users to display text, pictures, and video on a web-based canvas in nonlinear patterns (see the "What Is Prezi?" video at http://prezi.com). When an artist friend introduced Dr. Harkless to Prezi, he exclaimed, "Oh, my God. This is…easier to explain stuff. I can just write everything down and then group it together and say these things all match together." That, he says, started him on the road to using Prezi.

A specialist in theoretical and computational chemistry, Dr. Harkless has devoted his professional life to trying new things. He has spent much of his time "rewriting quantum mechanical problems in the language of statistics" to "bridge the gap between experimental observations and computational predictions." Throughout his academic career, his drive to explore has earned him recognition, including a Phi Beta Kappa key from Morehouse College, a Bell Laboratories graduate fellowship at the University of Berkeley, and the Theophilus Sorrel Award from the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE). However, since becoming a professor, he has always devoted extra time and effort to teaching. As one student commented on an anonymous evaluation, "He is a no nonsense kind of prof and teaching is his thing. If you want the easy 'A' with no real understanding of the subject matter he is not the one. If you truly want to learn chemistry and perhaps be really good at it then…definitely take his class."

It was Dr. Harkless's desire to teach more effectively that attracted him to Prezi. He explains:

All the stuff that you can't do anywhere else that you can in a Prezi is the reason why I use it. So I can zoom in on a picture of an atom and say, 'Right here in the middle, this little dot is full of positive charges and neutrons, and it does the following things' and then zoom back out and say, 'This fuzzy stuff is where all the electrons live' and then zoom further out and say, 'This is about how big it is compared to a penny.' I could do that in a PowerPoint, but I would need to make a QuickTime and then embed it and make sure that the video is going to play wherever I send the PowerPoint.
harkless

Now Dr. Harkless has honed his Prezi presentation skills down to a fine science. For instance, in the following Prezi, he illustrates the courseflow for his General Chemistry course, using "circles for grouping topics together and showing relationships": http://prezi.com/g90ys_sprbxu/general-chemistry-a-structural-approach. In his Prezi "Big Scary First Day of Class Speech," he uses "text scaling to preemptively provide an outline": http://prezi.com/y59ftdm7suk7/the-big-scary-first-day-of-class-speech. He observes, "The detail in each heading is small enough that it can only be seen when it's time to zoom in on that section, but the titles are large enough to be readable when the whole thing is in view." According to Dr. Harkless, Prezi is particularly effective for presenting broad concepts since he can demonstrate how all of the parts fit together by showing students the whole and then zooming in on each part. "The Prezi thing," he remarks, "is about showing lots of detail and layers of meaning." Moreover, he says, incorporating Prezi links in his lessons gives students "an opportunity to step through things at their own pace," and it makes class fun:

I can feel the genuine joy of talking about stuff and bringing stuff to life. My best PowerPoint, my A+ PowerPoint competes just fine against my B+/A- Prezi, but my A+ Prezi is a fundamentally different thing, and that moment—that bit of "shine time" when I'm just having a ball doing it and everyone else feels that and feeds on it and gets into whatever it is I'm trying to communicate—that's the goal.

 

 

 

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