Lisa Sharpe Elles ignites a hydrogen balloon during the first day of Chemistry 130.

By Doug Ward

The poor balloon never had a chance.

It was Monday, the first day of fall classes. Lisa Sharpe Elles, assistant teaching professor in chemistry, circled a yellow, hydrogen-filled balloon as it floated above a table in Gray-Little Hall. She told the 200-plus students in Chemistry 130 to cover their ears.

She carefully lifted a flame-tipped wooden rod to the balloon and suddenly pulled back.

She had remembered the lone fool in the front row. That was me, two cameras poised, awaiting a promised explosion.

She grabbed a pair of noise-canceling earmuffs from the floor and told me to put them on. I wasn’t going to argue.

Then, as the clock ticked toward the end of the class, Sharpe Elles held the flame to the balloon again and …


A yellowish-orange fireball flashed, the husk of the balloon plopped to the floor, and the 2022 academic year was off to a cracking start.

An appropriate symbol?

It would have been difficult to predict a flashy start to this school year. The last five pandemic-addled semesters have been more dud than boom. Class attendance was often sparse, students and faculty often seemed encrusted with ennui, and every day felt like the last mile of a marathon in which an invisible force kept moving the finish line farther away.

So far, though, a new spark seems to have spread. Faculty reported that students were eager and engaged on the first day of class, launching into discussions even without prompts to do so. Hallways were once again crowded, with students lingering to chat or finding seats so they could catch up on messages. There were reports of faculty going hoarse as they returned to projecting their voices across classrooms. Even the weather seemed in a different mood, leashing the dog days and instead trotting out mornings that offered a hint of autumn.

At last week’s Teaching Summit, faculty expressed worry about – yet again – trying to engage detached students in low-energy classrooms. If the first two days of Fall 2022 are any indication, though, they may not have much to worry about. It would be foolish to expect that the bubbly spirit of the opening days will last until December. The pandemic has humbled us again and again, melting predictions into foolish if-only-isms.

For a few days, though …


… it feels good to have some hope and maybe even a dream about breaking out the balloons.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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