The Emory Report features a story on chemistry’s new undergraduate curriculum, Chemistry Unbound.
For the science dedicated to studying how properties interact and change, chemistry has been static for decades in how it is taught.
That changes this fall, as Emory College of Arts & Sciences positions itself as a leader in teaching undergraduates the “central science” that links biology, physics and more with a revamp of its entire undergraduate chemistry curriculum.
While some colleges have changed individual classes, Emory is the first major research university to completely overhaul how it teaches chemistry, from introductory courses to capstone senior seminars.
Sometimes, being in an academic lab setting can feel a bit pointless. Instructors and TAs are there to help you every step of the way, procedures are laid out for you step-by-step, and everyone pretty much knows what the “right” result should be. I understand that this method helps you learn techniques and reinforce concepts, but it definitely isn’t what I’ve experienced in a real research setting.
Dr. Jeremy Weaver’s analytical chemistry lab has been a fun and fulfilling change of scenery from step-by-step lab work. Our class visited the WaterHub with sample collection bottles and got a hands-on look at the real science that goes on there (I talk more about the WaterHub experience here). Then, we took the samples back into the lab to do some real research.
Dr. Weaver famously says that analytical chemistry is the class where data accuracy and precision matter the most. But for the WaterHub project, he took a more open-ended approach. He didn’t give us a procedure to follow; instead, we spent a week scouring the Internet and the scientific literature to figure out what to do. And when we asked if a certain procedure would work, Dr. Weaver encouraged us to go for it, give it a shot, and see what happened.
Using the techniques we learned in lab, including gas chromatography, titrations, and spectrophotometry, we determined (somewhat successfully) the phosphate and aluminum concentrations of the water, along with “water hardness” – a fancy term for the concentrations of calcium, magnesium, and a few other ions in a water sample. These are values that water quality testers would measure during a routine check of water quality.
Of course, without a surefire procedure to follow, it took a couple of tries to work out the kinks. My portion of the project was to determine the phosphate concentration of the WaterHub samples using UV/Vis spectrometry. The concept behind this technique is simple – you add an agent to your sample that creates a color change, and the degree to which the color appears corresponds to the concentration of the sample. The first time I added my coloring agent to each sample, absolutely nothing happened – even when I knew that there was a ton of phosphate in the sample!
The process of research, as we learned, is full of troubleshooting and setbacks. But eventually, I found the amount of phosphate in the WaterHub water! Boy, did I feel accomplished because I found the procedure and performed the experiments myself. Even in an academic lab setting, it is possible to conduct real research, answer real questions, and engage with the Emory community on a larger level. Dr. Weaver’s WaterHub project brought the esoteric techniques of quantitative analytical chemistry and gave them new life through a real-life application.
Laura Briggs is a sophomore majoring in chemistry and dance. Laura is a Woodruff Scholar and the Vice President of the Emory Swing Dance Club. She is also a member of the Emory Dance Company and hosts a weekly, science-themed radio show. Laura is a research assistant in the Weinert lab, where she studies really cool bacteria that attack potatoes. Laura plans to pursue either a Ph.D. in biochemistry or a master’s in science writing.
To learn more about the WaterHub, check out this link from Campus Services!
Leah Williams came to Emory last summer at the same time that students, staff, and faculty were moving into the new Atwood Addition. Her arrival in the midst of that process seems fitting—as an HHMI Curriculum Development Postdoc, Leah is a part of the team working to re-envision the undergraduate chemistry curriculum at Emory.
The curriculum itself is designed, in part, to suit the unique teaching opportunities presented by the new addition. “Everything that we’re working on has been designed with the ATOMIC (Advancing the Teaching Of Matter through Innovation and Collaboration) room in mind,” says Leah. “A lot of the materials we’re creating are meant to be done in groups, they’re meant to be interactive. Taking advantage of that space, taking advantage of the round tables, the Learning Catalytics system (since we have screens everywhere), the dry erase boards and tables so they can share all their information.”
Before coming to Emory, Leah received her PhD in chemical education from Michigan State University. Her research focused on evidence-based methods for teaching students about the relationship between structure and properties. “It’s one of the bigger ideas of chemistry that the structure of a compound, of a substance determines the properties that you experience on the macroscopic level. It’s hard [for students] because it’s a very big jump from structure to properties and there is a lot you need to know in-between. “
At MSU, she assisted her advisor, Dr. Melanie M. Cooper, with the implementation of a revised general chemistry course called CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything. The changes were modeled on revisions made to general chemistry coursework at Clemson University. Leah actually began her PhD at Clemson, moving to MSU with her advisor when the opportunity arose to bring the curriculum revisions undertaken at Clemson to a new school.
Her experiences at MSU and Clemson inform Leah’s work at Emory. “Leah brings a wealth of expertise to our reform efforts,” says Tracy McGill. “Her experience with the NSF-sponsored CLUE curriculum, assessment, and design of learning activities has been invaluable to the Emory Chemistry department. She just finished her first year in the ATOMIC room and her insights about student learning have informed the changes we have already made in planning for the fall of 2016. It is a great pleasure to work with a colleague with such dedication and enthusiasm to our department and especially our students.”
Leah notes that the curriculum development underway at Emory has a key difference from her previous experiences. “It was just gen chem,” she explains, speaking of Clemson and MSU. “Here, we’re working on the whole curriculum. There are very few schools that have attempted this.”
That process presents unique challenges. For one thing, there aren’t many examples to draw on. For departments hoping to complete evidence-based curriculum overhauls in the future, Emory’s story will be part of the evidence—what works and what doesn’t.
The curriculum redesign started with a focus on big ideas—the themes tying together different courses throughout a student’s career. The approach allowed everyone to think big, but it was hard to zoom in on the details of individual courses. “Now,” says Leah, “we’ve flipped our approach and we’re working the other way.” The team is focusing on individual lessons and learning approaches, building the curriculum piece by piece. “Our goal is to give people a more concrete idea of what the courses are actually about. I think before it was very abstract and it’s hard to get people on board when they can’t envision themselves teaching that class because they’re not sure what’s in that class. Now, we’re working on more detail, but that takes time.”
Although the process is ongoing, undergraduate chemistry students are already seeing the influence of the curriculum redesign in the classroom as members of the faculty test activities from the under-development curriculum in the classroom. Leah worked with instructor Michael Reddish to test a version of the advanced physical chemistry lab designed to help students produce publishable research results. This Fall, the curriculum team will pilot an activity on potential energy and attractive forces that will have students in the ATOMIC room up on their feet: “The students struggle a lot understanding how potential energy is related to the attractive and repulsive forces between charged particles. So, we developed an activity where they’re going to run around and they’re going to have charges…this person is going to be a plus charge and this person will be a minus and we’re going to talk about what happens when they come together or they are further apart.”
The curriculum redesign centers on this kind of active engagement. Leah says that college students are “at the point where they can understand more complex ideas, deeper chemistry concepts, and they’re at that transition where they’re starting to take more responsibility for their own education and willing to put in the work to learn the hard stuff.” When she moves on from Emory, Leah hopes to continue teaching at the college level. “I like that transition, setting them off for harder chemistry studies as they go on.”
Michael C. Heaven has been named Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Chemistry. The named professorship is awarded to Emory faculty who are deemed to have considerable future promise in research and teaching. Dr. Heaven joined the Emory University Department of Chemistry in 1986. He is co-author of over 220 peer-reviewed papers published in many of the highest impact journals for the field of molecular spectroscopy. He has also supervised 22 PhD students and 11 post-doctoral fellows. His research programs are funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense.
A group of Emory University and Oxford College chemistry faculty and postdoctoral fellows attended the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education from July 31 toAugust 4 at the University of Northern Colorado. Brenda Harmon and Nichole Powell chaired a symposium, Karl Hagen and Tracy McGill presented oral papers, and Doug Mulford gave a poster presentation, establishing Emory as a key member of the chemical educational community. This was a great opportunity to learn about the latest innovations and implementations of chemistry curriculum, pedagogical methods, technology in the classroom, and undergraduate laboratory design. Additionally, it was a unique time for Emory and Oxford faculty to learn more about their respective departments and to engage in conversations about how best to support our students in both colleges.
Solar powered cars, boulders, and the expiration date of milk—these are just some of the everyday touchstones that Wallace Derricotte (Evangelista Group) connects to the chemical equations on the chalkboard during a recent classroom session for students taking part in the EPiC Summer Experience. Campers are engaged and attentive—and not at all passive. The class progresses as a conversation, with students connecting the lesson to previous classes as well as their own lives. Wallace handles the student-teacher interaction with calm and good humor and it’s clear to an outside observer that his enthusiasm for what he’s teaching is instrumental to making the classroom exchange so lively.
EPiC—which stands for the Emory Pipeline Collaborative—is a science enrichment program offered through the Emory School of Medicine. The program gives high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds a hands-on opportunity to explore careers in the health professions through labs, lectures, and field experiences. For many campers, their engagement with EPiC begins during the school year with Wednesday evening session on Emory’s campus. However, students can also apply and be accepted into EPiC for the summer only.
In addition to familiarizing students with science careers, EPiC introduces students to the college experience. Participants stay on campus for eight weeks, living in the dorms and eating in the dining halls.
After a recent classroom session on reaction processes, I had an opportunity to speak with four campers—Chanaya, Dakota, Omar, and Prynce. Eager to share their thoughts on how well the program approximates college life, the students were quick to hone in on one of the major differences between college and high school: the food.
“We really eat like college students,” said Chanaya.
“I’ve only eaten pizza since I’ve been here,” admitted Dakota.
Beyond the food, students described getting a real sense of what college is like, including being responsible for their own schedules and being a part of a busy community. “We get to experience the hustle and bustle of college life,” said Prynce. “I like that we had a lot of freedoms we don’t usually get at home,” added Omar.
The residential program also allows students to fully immerse themselves in the coursework—which covers a broad range of core concepts, from bonds to reaction processes to chemical equilibrium. “The classes are really rigorous,” says Chanaya. But, she adds, the more you learn, the less intimidating chemistry seems. “Mr. Wallace makes chemistry so much easier.”
Listening to Wallace’s students talk about how much they’re loving math—even calculus—the potential long-term impact of EPiC on students’ comfort level with science is clear. The students speak confidently about possible careers in a broad range of STEM fields. Chanaya wants to be a teacher or a nurse. Dakota and Prynce are both interested in engineering. And Omar is open to a broad range of careers, as long as it has to do with science: “Before, I kind of wanted to do something in an office or something. But now I know I want to do something scientifically related.”
Wallace Derricotte, an NSF GRFP awardee, become involved in EPiC in early 2015 when the administrators of the program approached him to take over for a graduate student teaching EPiC’s chemistry courses. “Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity,” says Wallace. “I’ve lived in Atlanta all my life and I relish the opportunity to give back something to the community that has given so much to me.”
The program also supports Wallace’s career goals for after the PhD. He hopes to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate college or university. “Even though the students I’m teaching are in high school, I teach the class at a college level,” says Wallace. “I’m able to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t when teaching chemistry. It’s good to get a feel for what teaching methods resonate with students and which ones don’t.”
Atasha Sutton, Instructional Lab Specialist for chemistry and an administrative lead for EPiC, praises Wallace’s approach. “Wallace is an excellent instructor, who made sure students were engaged during his lectures and had a thorough understanding of the material being taught.” Research advisor Francesco Evangelista echoes that praise, connecting the teaching opportunity to Wallace’s NSF award: “Wallace’s NSF fellowship recognizes both his excellence as a researcher and a genuine dedication to teaching and mentoring young scientists.”
Some of the demands of EPiC’s curriculum have given Wallace, who is a computational chemist, an opportunity to get outside his comfort zone and step back in to the environment of a wet lab. During a recent laboratory session with EPiC, he laughed with the students while having a brief struggle during the set-up of a demonstration on reaction kinetics. “I’m a theoretical chemist,” he reminded the students, as they laughed. His willingness to laugh at his own hiccup, however brief, is clearly part of what makes the students comfortable in the classroom and the lab. Everyone is learning.
“The opportunity with EPiC has truly been a learning experience for me,” agrees Wallace. “Every time I step into the classroom I feel sharper and more prepared that the previous class and that’s an experience I feel a lot of PhD students don’t get. The unique opportunity to design, implement, and teach your own course is a valuable skill for anyone looking to go into academia.”
The ATOMIC classroom is the 99-seat teaching space adjacent to the new Science Commons in Atwood Hall. The ATOMIC classroom is “Advancing the Teaching of Matter in Chemistry” through interactive classroom experiences. Students can view presentations on 360 degree screens or work out problems on the whiteboard walls and tables. Emory photographer David Johnson stopped by a few weeks ago to catch this unique classroom in action.
Stefan Lutz‘s quest to climb the “seven summits” is featured on Emory’s eScienceCommons in the story “A Scientist’s View from Earth’s Highest Mountains.”
Lutz is a biomolecular chemist who uses protein engineering to develop catalysts for therapeutic and industrial applications. He also enjoys teaching, and takes examples from his climbing experiences into the classroom to convey some of the complex concepts in biochemistry. “Using my mountaineering experiences brings these concepts to life and gets students more engaged,” Lutz says. “Most of them have experienced at least a hint of what I talk about, like the feeling you get at higher altitudes when hiking or skiing, so they relate to it.”
Tracy Morkin has been announced as the recipient of a 2010 Crystal Apple Award, recognizing her outstanding contributions in the classroom and to the Emory community at large. According to the awards criteria, “The Crystal Apple Awards honor faculty members who go above and beyond in their search for knowledge and involvement in the Emory community.”