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At American University, Chemistry Majors Take Charge

By Rebecca Basu

Chemistry 572

Students in Experimental Biological Chemistry (Chemistry 572) analyze reaction products on a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer. Matt Hartings/American University

A new laboratory curriculum for biochemistry and chemistry majors at American University gives students greater autonomy and lets them control research projects during their junior and senior years. It's a first-of-a-kind chemistry laboratory program at the university level based on faculty-guided free inquiry and in which students' research evolves from one year to the next. Subsequent groups of upper-level majors pick up where the last groups left off and further develop the research.

"Junior- and senior-level chemistry and biochemistry majors are given ownership of the research goals, and students are responsible for the direction the project goes in from year to year," said Matthew Hartings, assistant professor of chemistry. "In this way, American University's is a novel and natural approach and gives students real and lasting autonomy. We're putting education directly into the hands of our students and achieving better educational outcomes than any lecture or traditional laboratory could do."

Essentially, students inherit projects, and research continually grows according to student decisions. In the first semester of each sequence, a faculty instructor leads students through a set of previously performed experiments and students learn about a research project, lab techniques, and instrumentation. In the second semester, students build upon the first semester's work. In the next academic year, the research project becomes the introductory experiments for a new set of students. 

'I feel that I've grown'

Upper-level laboratory courses are often the first opportunity for biochemistry and chemistry majors to acquire and develop skills they'll need as professionals. Free inquiry-based laboratory courses are growing in university curricula, but AU's approach is the first where student decisions guide a project from year to year. 

While there are practical reasons for the new program, such as maintaining accreditation by the American Chemical Society, the goals of the new program are to improve student engagement, self-motivated problem solving, and critical thinking. Response to the new program has been overwhelmingly positive, according to roughly 60 student surveys. 

"They perceive that they are learning more and are more satisfied with the new laboratory curriculum than were the students in earlier years," Hartings said. "Taken all together, the data seems to say that our students both value and feel that they learn more in environments where they have more autonomy." 

Statements provided by students corroborate this conclusion. Some examples include: "You taught me a lot in regards to independent working in lab and more;this is the only lab that I feel that I've grown the most in," and "Enabled students to think critically," and "Engages students to problem solve what they need to do to learn information about the materials being tested."

Other outcomes include a published research article in a peer-reviewed academic journal; faculty submitted research grants based on, and intended to support, the students' work; and a $25,000 grant from NASA for promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education.

'Thoughtful conversation'

Professors in AU's Department of Chemistry have learned to take on a new role and engage students as advisors rather than lecturers. 

"One of the most difficult roles for the faculty advisor is to help the students see a reasonable pathway from where the previous semester ended to the societal or research problem they are interested in addressing," Hartings said. 

For instance, one group of students wanted to move the research towards developing new ways to detect cancer -- an ambitious project for the most experienced of researchers. To help students focus their idea into something manageable, advisors ask questions to have a "thoughtful conversation."

Through this process, the students worked towards figuring out the best, and most reasonable, first step to making a new cancer diagnostic. They determined that they should develop protocols for attaching proteins to the material they had been studying. The project scope became appropriate for a semester's worth of experiments, and in later academic years, new sets of students have carried this research forward. Although results from experiments changed the goal of making a cancer diagnostic, the research has opened up new and exciting directions, such as studying processes related to how silk and bone are produced. 

Hartings and his colleagues at AU recently published a paper in the Journal of Chemical Education chronicling the results of the new program. Complete with grading rubrics and sample schedules, the paper shows peer institutions of similar size (and the authors recommend, larger ones, making appropriate adjustments) how they can do it, too.  

AU faculty members involved in this work feel that giving lasting research decisions to students can have profound effects on STEM education. This approach, which lets science students do science, also creates fascinating, new research that students get to share through publications and presentations.