By Hasna Mokhtar,
I never knew chemistry could be a source of happiness, excitement and create positively critical citizens until I heard it from Collin College Professor Dr. Amina El-Ashmawy.
Her unique relationship with Chemistry not only makes her a passionate mentor, but also earned her the title 2015 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).
She is a published author, a trusted adviser in the American Chemical Society and serves on countless task forces. She also holds an associate degree from Kilgore College, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of North Texas.
El-Ashmawy’s website welcomes readers with an intriguing quote. She cites American chemist Linus Pauling saying, “I feel sorry for people who don’t understand anything about chemistry. They are missing an important source of happiness.”
So what is it about chemistry that delights El-Ashmawy?
“Having an understanding of chemistry allows you to see the beauty of everything around you at a deeper level and be more critical of information presented,” El-Ashmawy told us.
“A few examples include contemplating the molecular structure of clouds while on an airplane, when to add salt to water in cooking pasta, or deciding which over-the-counter healthcare product to buy.”
Born in Egypt and raised in the U.S., El-Ashmawy said during her acceptance speech that her mother used to call her “Mademoiselle Deroose” — or “Miss Lessons” and that planted a seed.
“The spark that ignited my passion for teaching happened at Kilgore College in freshman general chemistry class. My instructor, Mrs. Anita Neeley — who has since retired — made the subject interesting, relatable and fun to learn.”
Surrounded by education and science all her life, as both her parents had double doctorate degrees, El-Ashmawy remembers as a child watching how the water from a hose was absorbed in the soil wondering what happens to it after she couldn’t see it.
“I always liked knowing why or how. My mother recognized this in me. Her calling me ‘Miss Lessons’ meant a lot to me because her opinion weighed heavily. It made me feel special. Consequently, as a teacher, I think it is important to make my students feel they matter and are important,” El-Ashmawy said.
Honoring the fun and practical teaching style that prompted her to enjoy chemistry, El-Ashmawy encourages her students to not think of the subject as a hurdle but a great opportunity to become more learned, analytical, positively critical citizens.
“Chemistry builds from the simplest concepts up to complex, multi-concept topics. Each piece is related and linked to many others and, with enough pieces, they all ultimately fit together to present a beautiful, majestic picture,” she said.
El-Ashmawy told us, “The objective is to develop higher-order thinking skills that allow students to be better thinkers, learners and problem solvers. I’ve had thousands of students over the years. Some of them realized through my class that their major, usually a STEM field, is or is not the right major for them. Many of my former students are highly successful doctors, engineers, pharmacists, nurses, scientists, researchers, business owners and executives, among other professions. I am aware that one of my former students ran for public office.”
To keep her students engaged, El-Ashmawy uses real examples to show the relevance and importance of chemistry in everyday life. But the task is not always easy and comes with certain challenges.
“Chemistry is highly abstract. One has to relate the macroscopic world to a nanoscopic world of atoms, molecules, ions, electrons, etc., which is difficult for most students. In addition, there is a lot of math to be applied that requires conceptual understanding. Students have not been taught how to think in those terms,” she said.
Despite the challenges, El-Ashmawy continues to be a motivated educator feeling responsible for shaping her country and the world’s future through educating students to the best of her ability.
“Through the course of the semester, it’s quite exciting when my students’ perceptions about chemistry slowly transform. When they can see how chemistry impacts everyday life and why chemistry is so important to society. Those transformations are precisely what drive me every day as I walk into the classroom,” she said.
Overwhelmed, humbled and honored to have received such national recognition, El-Ashmawy said that it is a huge blessing. “One I cannot quite wrap my mind around totally. God’s gifts to us are beyond our comprehension!”
To Muslim women mentors El-Ashmawy says, “Be proud of who and what you are. Carry yourself with dignity and respect.”