FEDERAL GRANT WILL ALLOW UNDERGRADS TO DESIGN OWN RESEARCH PROJECTS
COLUMBUS , Ohio – Next fall, when some students at Ohio State University begin working on their first-ever chemistry lab experiment, they'll have no idea what the outcome is going to be.
And neither will their teacher.
Ohio State is leading a consortium of universities from across the state to develop a new kind of course for chemistry students. The course will be the centerpiece of an Undergraduate Research Center, funded by a new $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
By 2010, all 15 member institutions will offer new chemistry curricula that use open-ended experiments to teach students what research is all about. Lab instructors will provide guidance, but students will formulate their own strategies to answer new questions that are vital to today's science and industry.
In short, they'll do what full-fledged scientists do every day.
Ohio State's partners in the project – called the Undergraduate Research Consortium: Research Experiences to Enhance Learning (URC-REEL) – include the University of Akron, Bowling Green State University, Capital University, Central State University, University of Cincinnati, Cleveland State University, Columbus State Community College, University of Dayton, Kent State University, Miami University of Ohio, Ohio University, University of Toledo, Wright State University, and Youngstown State University.
"We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across the state in changing the way that introductory chemistry is taught to our undergraduate students,” said Barbara Snyder, executive vice president and provost of Ohio State . “Students who design and execute original research as part of an undergraduate course become more engaged with the subject matter.”
Prabir Dutta, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at Ohio State , said that the grant is intended to boost the number of students statewide who earn bachelor's degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields.
Despite the fact that Ohio hosts major research programs in these fields, the state ranks 36th in the nation for the number of undergraduate students who earn STEM degrees. Based on past statistics, only 20 percent of the nearly 40,000 students who enrolled as STEM majors at the 15 partner institutions in 2001 will actually earn a STEM degree.
For most STEM students, chemistry is the common denominator. It's a required subject in most STEM fields, and students typically take chemistry courses during their freshman and sophomore years as a critical foundation for more advanced studies in other areas.
Yet, chemistry is not an easy subject, and the typical laboratory classes – where students reproduce time-worn experiments cookbook-style – do little to liven it up, Dutta said.
But in real life, research is a roller coaster ride of inquiry, discovery, exhilaration, and – yes, occasionally – disappointment when an experiment doesn't work out. And Dutta wants students to experience it all.
“If students get excited about the discovery process, even the frustrations associated with it can get them more interested in science,” he said.
Typically, only the top-performing undergraduate students participate in research, usually by working in a professor's laboratory. But Dutta said URC-REEL partners want to do something different.
“We want to provide research experiences for every student,” he said.
Dutta expects that students who take the new lab courses will earn better grades and be more likely to stick with their major than students who take traditional chemistry courses.
URC-REEL will gradually work the new courses into chemistry curricula, first at Ohio State and select partner institutions. As the program matures, variations of this approach will be adopted at all collaborating institutions. Partners anticipate that these changes will affect at least 15,000 students statewide by 2010.
“We hope this project will ultimately produce more graduates in chemistry and other sciences, which will help Ohio attract businesses that need employees trained in science and technology," Snyder said.
Dutta hopes the courses will serve an even larger purpose as well.
“Even if these students start out as science majors and decide not to continue, they will have learned how to think scientifically. They will always have that,” he said. “I see this project as a way of building up the science and technology base of society.”
Patrick Woodward, associate professor of chemistry at Ohio State , will direct the center. He and faculty from partner institutions are developing new educational modules that will address open questions in areas where chemistry overlaps with fields such as medicine, biology, materials science, and environmental science.
URC-REEL will receive approximately $750,000 for the first year and then $570,000 per year for the next 4 years. The money will fuel the biggest overhaul to chemistry curricula that the state has ever seen.
Other institutions may join; Dutta said the consortium wants to recruit at least seven new members by the end of the project – community colleges in particular.
“Even though Ohio State is leading the effort, we are all equals in this venture,” he said. “Now that the Undergraduate Research Center is a reality, there's a sense among the partners that we can make other collaborations happen too.”
The National Science Foundation's Undergraduate Research Center (URC) program funds partnerships that expand the reach of undergraduate research to include first- and second-year college students, and enhances the research capacity, infrastructure, and culture of participating institutions, thereby strengthening the nation's research enterprise. Projects expose students to research of contemporary scientific interest that is addressed with modern research tools and methods.
Contact: Prabir Dutta, (614) 292-4532; Dutta.firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Pam Frost Gorder, (614) 292-9475; Gorder.email@example.com