NSF Catalyzed Innovations in the Undergraduate Curriculum

Robert K. Boggess and Cindy A. Burkhardt

The 26th National Science Foundation Symposium, “NSF Catalyzed Innovations in the Undergraduate Curriculum”, was held as part of the Division of Chemical Education program at the 244th American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition.  The speakers were chosen from recent NSF award winners within the Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) – Phase I, CCLI –Type 1, and Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (TUES)-Type I programs.  Topics discussed in the Symposium covered a large range of curricular innovations, gave the awardees a forum in which to report accomplishments, and provided the opportunity for an exchange of ideas to continue curricular innovations.

Jeanne Pemberton from the University of Arizona described the integration of luminescence spectroscopy across the curriculum, specifically emphasizing its use for analysis of molecular assemblies and energy conversion materials.  Maria Hepel of the State University of New York at Potsdam introduced curricular changes by incorporating Raman spectroscopy in courses offered by chemistry, biology, and anthropology departments.  Another approach at incorporating structure determination into the curriculum was presented by Dean Johnston of Otterbein University as he outlined how experimental structural chemistry was introduced using X-ray diffraction to provide a structural data continuum.  Michelle Bushey from Trinity University described the use of a hand-held X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and inductively coupled plasma–optical emission spectrometer in both chemistry and geoscience courses.  Both techniques allowed enhanced student engagement and a better understanding of elemental analysis and spectroscopy.

David Rusterholz described a newly designed and implemented organic-first curriculum at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.  Their goals included a higher student retention rate, enhanced learning, and increased interest in chemistry.  Changes to the organic laboratory curriculum were presented by S. Shaun Murphree of Allegheny College as he described new and adapted synthetic methods designed to implement microwave-assisted organic synthesis and the development of new laboratory materials to support the redesigned organic curriculum.

Hands-on experience with modern instrumentation and project-based curricula has been demonstrated to enhance real-world problem solving skills.  Todd Silverstein described an innovative biochemistry laboratory course at Willamette University in which a two-semester sequence is integrated with an upper-level Instrumental Analysis lecture course.  The biochemistry experiments draw on the expertise of all fields of chemistry and begin with skill-based laboratories and progress to problem-based laboratories.  Stephen Cessna of Eastern Mennonite University described their program to integrate research-based problem solving skills across biology and chemistry courses and into faculty and student research efforts.  These were accomplished by developing several multi-week projects focusing on environmental themes and utilizing modern instrumentation.  Daniel Martinez from the University of Southern Maine discussed the development of an applied energy curriculum that includes coursework, laboratory exercises utilizing energy equipment, field study, internships, energy efficiency analysis, and life cycle assessment.

Successful collaborations can greatly impact researchers and students alike and enhance the field of science.  Stephen Cooke of Purchase College described how the implementation of UV-Vis, fluorescence, and HPLC instruments early into their program improved the success of students in the biochemistry curriculum.  Instrumentation was also introduced into the curricula of six community colleges whose students often transfer to Purchase College.  Details of the partnership and required work were outlined.  M. Paul Chiarelli of Loyola University described a collaborative effort between the University and Harold Washington College and Truman College to introduce mass spectrometry to the participating Chicago City Colleges.  The goal was to involve students using the instrumentation to study halomethane water disinfection by-products.  With more hands-on and real-world science, student interest is normally enhanced.  Rui Zhang of Western Kentucky University and Shawn Kellie of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College described the incorporation of two FT-NMR spectrometers into the curricula at both institutions led to a successful collaboration.  They discussed specific courses affected by the instrumentation, training, workshops for high school students and teachers, outreach activities, challenges faced by the collaboration, and the stimulation of a broader partnership.

Teaching science to non-science majors is a major challenge in undergraduate education.  L. Kraig Steffen described an innovative approach developed to teach science through the core curriculum at Fairfield University.  Thematically related science courses or a science and closely related field were combined as a course couple taught back to back in the same room. Two semester couples were also explored.  Students were encouraged to learn material across disciplinary lines and connect the course ideas to societal concerns, thus demonstrating the practice of modern science.  Jane Rice of Michigan State University described a recently developed science course curriculum for pre-service K-8 teachers.  It is based on explicit and repeated practice with three fundamental chemistry concepts, utilizing physical instructional models.  Assessment suggested that the repeated use of physical models did improve educational outcomes.

Transforming undergraduate education for the enhancement of science is a challenging and ongoing process.  Educational tools are of utmost importance.  John Moore of the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented an overview of ChemPRIME, an online wiki text, and ChemPaths, an online instructor resource that utilizes ChemPRIME.  Both were developed in the Chemical Education Digital Library.  Specific examples were presented, demonstrating how these programs were used by four teachers at other institutions and reporting chemical education research studies of that use.  Cary Moskovitz of Duke University described a new approach to improving scientific and technical writing skills of undergraduate STEM students.  University alumni and employees with scientific and technical backgrounds are utilized as readers for student writing assignments.  Their goals include improving student attitudes toward writing and gaining maturity in the scientific writing style.

In addition to the diverse topics discussed in the Symposium, an overview of Chemistry within the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education was given by David Brown, one of the current Program Officers at NSF.  David was joined by Pamela Brown and Joseph Grabowski, also Program Officers at NSF, to lead a well-received question-answer period with the audience.

The Symposium provided Principle Investigators of sixteen NSF awards the opportunity to disseminate the results of their projects.  The overview and panel discussion provided a means for audience members to gain information about current NSF programs and also an opportunity to ask specific questions of NSF personnel.  Plans are underway to continue the Symposium at the 246th National Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana (September 2013).  The organizers will solicit abstracts from potential speakers in January.  All recent (last five years) CCLI and TUES awardees should receive an invitation to participate in the Symposium.  If the invitation is not received, please contact either of the organizers at Radford University.