Emory University was recently named as a recipient of a grant from The Association of American Universities for the improvement of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The grant is part of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, a project launched in 2011 to encourage STEM departments to maximize student engagement through effective teaching strategies. The AAU explains:
“These strategies include creating learning communities for STEM faculty members involved in reform efforts, establishing programs to train graduate students and undergraduate teaching assistants or peer advisors in active learning practices, renovating classrooms into collaborative learning spaces, and creating inclusive and welcoming learning environments for all students.”
The mission of this initiative aligns perfectly with Chemistry Unbound, our undergraduate curriculum, that has seen great success since its start in Fall 2017.
Chemistry major Ashley Diaz has been awarded a 2018 Barry Goldwater Scholarship. The prestigious award supports highly promising undergraduates in mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering and Ashley was one of just 221 recipients out of 1,280 applicants. Ashley will use the scholarship to further her research in the Wuest Group.
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.
Professor Francesco Evangelista and chemistry student Junchu Zeng were both recognized for their accomplishments at the Phi Beta Kappa initiation ceremony at Emory on Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 in Canon Chapel. Students elected to Phi eta Kappa are asked to name a faculty member “who has encouraged and helped students to excel, and who exemplifies intellectual rigor and enthusiasm for scholarly pursuits.”
The Emory College chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Gamma of Georgia, was founded in 1929. Emory students are elected to the society based on scholarship, breadth of culture, and general promise. Ten percent of U.S. colleges and universities have Phi Beta Kappa chapters and chapters select only ten percent of their arts and sciences graduates to join.
Early mentoring experiences solidified Sunidhi Ramesh’s desire to pursue a career in medicine.
“I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was four,” she explains. That was the age when she started accompanying her favorite uncle on visits to his medical practice in a small, rural village in India. Her uncle’s clinic “was so different from any clinic or hospital that you would see here. It was quiet, and he was often the only person working there.” In that small space, she saw her uncle having a big impact.
“He used to give out free medicine. If he had patients who were homeless, he wouldn’t charge them. It was a very humbling process. He would be tired at the end of the day, but he’d be happy. I noticed that really quickly.”
Sunidhi’s interest in medicine eventually led her to the strong STEM programs at Emory. As a first year student, she struggled with time management—understandable considering she was involved in an array of activities, from writing for The Wheel to performing on a Bollywood dance team. Attending Chem Mentor tutoring sessions helped her to slow down and learn to budget her time.
“Chem Mentors kind of forced me to sit down and say, ‘Okay, these two hours are just for chemistry problems.’ I could figure out what I was comfortable with and what I wasn’t comfortable with and study from there. It gave me a baseline,” says Sunidhi.
Now, Sunidhi—a double major in Neuroscience and Sociology—is a Chem Mentor, helping other students to enhance their experience in Chem 141 and 142.
Chem Mentors are upper level students who provide weekly tutoring sessions to students enrolled in “Gen Chem.” Students who apply to be mentors must have completed Gen Chem classes at Emory with a grade of A- or better and are required to submit a reference from an Emory professor. Selected students undergo training and are also required to attend Gen Chem class sessions—helping to refresh their content knowledge and allowing them to serve as an in-class resource to students taking the class for the first time.
The tutoring sessions are the heart of the program, giving Chem Mentors responsibility for their peers’ learning. Mentors must develop their own approach to the material and lead sessions independently. Sunidhi says that one of the challenges is finding ways to help students who have different levels of comfort with the material under review. She’s learned not to make assumptions about what students already know; when students do show mastery, she will often keep them engaged by asking them to teach the material to others who are struggling. Her own experience with Chem Mentors has showed her that teaching material can help to solidify complex concepts even for students who have a firm grasp on course content.
“You benefit from teaching someone and learning how to explain the problem and someone else benefits from hearing it from another person,” she says.
The challenges from the program have given her a new respect for the professors who deal with these kinds of issues every day. “I’m a lot more sympathetic with professors now!”
At the same time, Sunidhi and her fellow Chem Mentors are able to use their role to help other students feel more comfortable with their professors. “Sometimes students aren’t as comfortable going to [the faculty] with questions. During our sessions, they come to us and we try to refer them to their professors to make them more comfortable with going to office hours; first years, especially, are very anxious. They think they can’t go to office hours unless they have a good question to ask.”
Director of Undergraduate Studies Dr. Doug Mulford praises Sunidhi’s commitment. “Sunidhi has been a model mentor helping countless students understand the material in Chemistry 141 and 142. She relates to them as one who has been there herself.” Dr. Tracy McGill adds: “The Chem Mentors themselves are what make the program so outstanding. Having a peer who has succeeded in the course earlier and can model tenacity, patience, and a methodical approach to breaking down a complex problem is invaluable to our students’ success.”
Sunidhi’s commitment to mentoring extends beyond chemistry. She mentors high school students through Emory Pipeline, a program that seeks to build awareness of STEM careers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and she has also served as an Orientation Leader twice. “I think it’s a rewarding experience to be a mentor in general,” she says. “You get to see things from a different perspective.”
With Chem Mentors, Sunidhi is often pleasantly surprised by what she has retained from Gen Chem. “Sometimes I’m surprised that I still remember how to do the problem! I think those kinds of surprises combined with the reward of having to teach a class and seeing students have that ‘a-ha’ moment where they realize how a concept works—those are the rewards that line up and make it a good program.”
Maybe some of Sunidhi’s drive to mentor others comes from her own experience finding her way. “We kind of had to Guinea pig our way through everything,” she says, describing the way that she and her family have approached her goal of being a doctor. Both of her parents are immigrants from India and she is the oldest child, trying to forge a path through a very different educational system. As she’s progressed—and continued to teach others—that path has become more and more clear.
“I don’t know anything else I can do,” she says. “Medicine is what I love.”
Interested in being a ChemMentor? Applications for the 2016-2017 school year will be accepted this coming Spring. Students who have earned an A or A- in their chemistry courses are eligible to apply. Selected mentors are required to enroll in Chem 392R, the Chem Mentor training course. Dr. Tracy McGill says: “Chem Mentors is an exciting opportunity for undergraduate students to develop their leadership skills, work with their peers, deepen their understanding of chemistry concepts, and build relationships with faculty mentors.” Contact Dr. McGill or Dr. Mulford with questions.
Emory’s American Chemical Society-affiliated undergraduate club, ChEmory, has been recognized as a Green Chemistry Student Chapter for the third year running. The award provides national recognition for ACS student chapters who have shown outstanding commitment to incorporating green chemistry into their annual activities. The judges praised ChEmory for their work drawing connections between traditional chemistry demonstrations and green chemistry ideas like pollution prevention and sustainable product design.
ChEmory also received an honorable mention for ACS Chapter-at-Large, placing them in the top fifteen percent of chapters across the country.
ChEmory kicked off the year with their first general body meeting on September 7th. ChEmory’s next event will be a coffee talk with Dr. Don Batisky, the Executive Director of Emory’s Pre-Health Mentoring Office taking place TODAY, Wednesday, September 21st at 5:30pm in Atwood 316. ChEmory members are invited to share coffee and conversation about approaching the pre-medical track through chemistry.
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.”
Chemistry major Julia Gensheimer (EC ’19) won the 2016 American Chemical Society t-shirt design contest! Julia’s t-shirt will be produced and sold at the upcoming ACS national meeting in Philadelphia. Julia’s design was selected as one of six finalists and the winning design was chosen via online voting. Asked how she came up with her winning design, Julia said: “When the contest began, the chemical structures and lab techniques from a year of studying organic chemistry were fresh in my mind. Using ChemDraw, I created a simple design that I thought best represented the subject. It is exciting to share my love of chemistry with others through this t-shirt design and I am very thankful for the support!”
The following students received departmental awards at our Undergraduate Awards Ceremony and Poster Session in April. This event included a Hightower-sponsored Keynote talk by Laura Kiessling from the University of Wisconsin. Congratulations to all the award winners!
Outstanding Chemistry Major ($500 and a copy of the CRC)
Excellence in Undergraduate Research ($500)
Excellence in Undergraduate Educational Support ($100 each)
Vanish Patel, Jeffrey Weiss, Daniel Kikuchi
Outstanding First Year Chemistry Student ($100 each)
Xiqin Huang, Leah Nieman
Early Career Achievement Research Grant ($100 award and $1000 departmental research budget)
Houston Smith, Widicus Weaver Group
Hypercube Outstanding Physical Chemistry Student(Certificate and a copy of Hypercube)
Undergraduate Award in Analytical Chemistry (Certificate and recognition from division)
Undergraduate Award in Organic Chemistry (Certificate and recognition from division)
William Jones Scholarship ($8000 tuition grant for senior year)
Kevin Hoang, Junyi Liu
Outstanding Poster Presentation
First Place: Jessica Elinburg
Runners up: Casey Anthony, Kevin Hoang, Yuhgene Liu