For the most part, we are still instructing undergraduate students in the same way as when I went to school, and I think this is a disservice to the students and to the nature of chemistry. No wonder chemistry programs have trouble attracting students compared to other science disciplines, like biology and psychology. Students will take general chemistry, but they cannot see where it may lead. I want to change that.
I am rolling through the 12th year of my independent career here at U.T. Arlington. In that time, my group has worked on a lot of different and exciting research topics. As I reflect, I am quite certain that my vision 12 years ago would incorporate virtually nothing of what I am actually doing now. It is for this reason that I state continuously that I love my job and that I love how in analytical chemistry, you are always on the learning curve. We know how to use a wide variety of analytical techniques well, and we are always faced with new and interesting problems to which we can apply them. While it is my goal to supply that realization and level of excitement to all students with whom I interact, if I go back another 10 years or so, when I was a student, and consider my directions then, where I am now seems even more astounding.
It is not my intention here to account a history of how I got to be where I am, doing something that I love, but rather to reflect on my educational experiences and how they directed me on the path here. In short, it is somewhat of a miracle. I give much credit to the interactions I had with many mentors. I was afforded opportunities that worked out, seemingly always better than imagined. I chose the path to academia and analytical chemistry, because I was shown the path by others who took an interest in me personally.
I will be the first to admit that I had a solid education. I earned a chemistry degree from a very demanding program at William and Mary, and then I was coaxed, most fortunately, into seeking a Ph.D. degree at Virginia Tech (Thank you, Harold McNair!). In those places, admittedly a small sample set, I experienced roles in the chemistry education system, both as an undergraduate student and as a graduate teaching assistant (GTA).
When I was a GTA, one experience epitomizes my current distress with mainstream chemistry education. It was the end of a general chemistry lab session, and the students were checking out after completing their prescribed laboratory experiment, which involved investigating the effect of temperature on solubility. I am not sure what prompted me to do it, but I randomly asked some of the students, “So, does an increase in temperature of the solution increase or decrease solubility?” I was astounded that virtually all of them had to pause and think about the answer, and even then, about half of them got it wrong! Well, maybe they had just finished and so had not internalized the results of their experiment, but it was not until I followed up with another question where I saw them experience an “aha!” moment: “Is it easier for you to dissolve sugar in cold coffee or hot coffee?” Perhaps the pre-lab write-up provided more information to place the experiment in better context (I do not recall), but clearly the experiment itself had not achieved the appropriate understanding, at least not immediately.
Now that I have taught general chemistry a couple of times, I continue to be astounded by the disconnectedness of presented topics. Moving on from general chemistry (if you are still with us), you enter into the realm of segregated topics-organic, inorganic, physical, analytical, biochemistry. To this day, I still say that I never understood that all of these chemistry subdisciplines actually overlap and intertwine until I reached graduate school. For the most part, we are still instructing undergraduate students in the same way as when I went to school, and I think this is a disservice to the students and to the nature of chemistry. No wonder chemistry programs have trouble attracting students compared to other science disciplines, like biology and psychology. Students will take general chemistry, but they cannot see where it may lead. I want to change that.
I wrote previously about an open inquiry model for science education (1) that we had been developing for freshman chemistry and biology majors. A fairly new program, Achieving Success in Science through Undergraduate Research and Engagement (ASSURE), put freshman chemistry and biology students together to learn research methods and perform a guided inquiry through the discovery of novel antibiotics from marine natural products. This program won the 2016 University Award from the North Texas Tech Titans organization (www.techtitans.org) for its innovative programming and use of technology. Even so, it was not perfect. Programs such as this are hard to create without requiring extensive additional monetary investment.
One of the ways that we were able to include this research experience in the freshman curriculum was by substituting our programming for General Chemistry and General Biology lab courses. In the third semester of ASSURE, students even received credit for Quantitative Analysis lab in our department and some upper-level research credit in Biology. While ASSURE was previously a collaboration between our department and the Department of Biology, we have now decided to split up and each do our own thing. It occurred to me, given my past experiences, that we may be able to hijack virtually all of the chemistry lab courses through the chemistry curriculum, and then use that time to promote a more inquiry-based model that reinforced the various lecture courses, as the students progressed through the program.
In fall 2017, we will pilot the Advanced Chemical Technologies track for a cohort of chemistry majors. We will use the General Chemistry 1 and 2 labs in the first year to both teach research methods and engage the students with some guided inquiry that promotes the early learning of synthesis and measurement techniques. Students will have their hands on advanced chromatography instrumentation before they finish their first year. We imagine the creation of various modules, supported by on-line learning using resources such as CHROMacademy (www.chromacademy.com), to get students familiar with running analytical instruments and how to use them to characterize chemical reactions. As the program progresses into the second, third, and fourth years, the students will develop and perform various levels of research projects, culminating in a senior capstone project. In many cases, we can combine the times that might be spent in, for example, quantitative analysis lab and organic chemistry lab courses, which will enable these students to dedicate up to 12 hours per week on research, while still being a credit neutral program. We will be intentional about building in interfaces with local industry. In fact, our plan is to convene a board of industrial scientists that will be able to judge and give feedback on research projects, as well as communicate the problems faced in the workplace to our students.
I am excited to work with my colleagues to develop this new program. I think it will provide a better context about what chemistry can involve much earlier in a student’s education. We expect that we will not only improve retention of our majors, but that we will be a very attractive option to high school students considering chemistry as their major. Our goal will be to provide an experience unparalleled in undergraduate chemistry education. I have always felt that U.T. Arlington is a place where innovation and the creation or testing of new programs has been treated as a glass-half-full experiment. Upper administration, even up to the president of our university, is very excited about the prospects of our new program. With such a program, we can also capitalize and build on past such innovative successes, such as our partnership with Shimadzu (www.uta.edu/sirt). Of course, any new program will need to be assessed and improved as time goes on, but I find myself very excited about the prospect of giving students an education very much different, and hopefully much more engaging, than the traditional chemistry education I received.
Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGCEmerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.