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September 22, 2003
Volume 81, Number 38
CENEAR 81 38 pp. 34-35
ISSN 0009-2347


High school and college teachers empower students to do consequential science projects


Students arriving in high school or college may be bubbling with enthusiasm about science, but they may not have the tools to channel their energy into meaningful scientific activities. And students arriving in grad school or industry may discover they haven’t been prepared with the tools needed for a career in the “real world.” But chemical educators are developing several techniques to impart skills to students earlier so they can get a faster start in their endeavors. The educators described their innovative programs in posters and talks in the Division of Chemical Education during the American Chemical Society national meeting held earlier this month in New York City.

POLLUTANT PATROL Dowling College undergraduate Gary Falta, who mentors high school student researchers, collects a sample from the Patchogue River for testing.
These science teachers have observed that students need more help to transition successfully from one stage of their career to the next. For instance, “there’s a disconnect between the undergraduate curriculum and what students do once they graduate,” according to Diane W. Husic, chairman and professor in the chemistry department at East Stroudsburg University, a primarily undergraduate institution in Pennsylvania. “We try to bridge the gap between undergraduate education and the real world.”

In doing so, Husic has designed a challenging curriculum that pushes students to grow. For instance, undergrads in her second-semester biochemistry course are taught to “read and pull apart and understand journal articles,” she said. The students must explain and critique the research for their class members. They also have to identify “what the next questions are, what the authors have left to do next.”

Husic believes that “having students pull apart portions of a manuscript for analysis shows them not only how to write technically, but also how to identify research questions, to consider the logic of experimental design (that is, what procedures and what experiments will get at a particular question being asked), and to evaluate the quality of data and conclusions made by scientists.”

But Husic is concerned with more than the mechanics of dissecting a technical paper. “I use the journal articles to show connections between the concepts being taught in class and current research that is being done in the field,” she explained. “This helps to make real-world connections for the students as they realize that they are not just learning some static information from a textbook or the professor.”

As a culminating experience in the course, students write a grant proposal in National Science Foundation format. Students tackle topics that match their interests. One undergrad, for example, has a sister with Crohn’s disease, so she chose the disorder as the focus of her project. After conducting an extensive literature review, the students propose a series of research objectives and experimental approaches. “Students also have to do a budget, so they have to look up the costs of reagents, instrumentation, graduate student stipends, etcetera,” Husic said. “They gain a whole new appreciation of ‘doing science’ from that part of the assignment.”

The students present their proposals to a mock review panel of their peers. The panelists evaluate the proposals for significance of the research, the feasibility and appropriateness of the proposed experiments, clarity, and so forth.

The experience, Husic said, is “hated by students initially and loved by them once they go out the door to grad school or industry. Graduates have told me that it helped them design their research proposal for graduate school or prepare project justifications and reports in industry.”

B.S. students enjoy the luxury of having four or five years of college to acquire such useful real-world skills. Chemical technician students, on the other hand, may have just two years to get their degree. Additionally, they usually come to college with little or no experience with analytical equipment, and they often have to juggle heavy course loads and work and family responsibilities, according to Pamela A. Brown, an associate chemistry professor at New York City College of Technology. “A lot of students arrive enthusiastic and want to get involved in the laboratory but don’t have the necessary skills,” she said. “By the time they have received the training to conduct research, it is time to graduate.”

Brown speeds her most motivated first- and second-semester chemistry students along the learning curve by having them design their own experiments. To get a student started, Brown suggests an idea for a lab exercise. The student then does background reading to come up with a procedure, tests it out, and writes it up.

Brown asked one student to find out how to determine the calcium concentration in food using a calcium electrode. Another developed a microwave synthesis for banana oil. A third is designing a breathalyzer this semester. The best of the experiments that are designed by Brown’s students are adopted for use in the college’s general chemistry labs.

Knowing that one’s work could be useful to others may be one of the best motivators for doing research. But the utility is not always apparent, and college students and even grad students may sometimes be at a loss to find the purpose in their toil. High school students are even less likely to find themselves doing useful scientific work. But Lori A. Zaikowski, associate professor and chairman of the chemistry department at Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., and Paul Lichtman, a science research teacher at nearby Uniondale High School have found a way to turn the creative drive of a group of high school students into science that makes a difference.

CURRENTLY, MORE THAN 40 students at the high school are working on multiyear research projects. In this program, “students are not ‘farmed out’ to high-powered research institutions, but rather develop their projects from an original idea that interests them,” according to Zaikowski. The students are responsible for designing and implementing the experimental methodology, presenting their results in written and oral form at science competitions, and developing further studies. The students rely on the “Uniondale Research Manual,” which Lichtman wrote, for guidance in the scientific discovery process, research ethics, scientific integrity, and the preparation of their research papers.

First, the students figure out what project they want to do. Then they identify a mentor to whom they send a detailed research proposal with specific questions, such as, “I’ve seen a particular UV-Vis technique in the literature. Could this method be modified to do what I want to do?” The students are given a budget for purchasing supplies. And they can use the lab instruments and expertise of faculty and students at Dowling College.

Many of the projects integrate chemistry and biology, Zaikowski told C&EN. For instance, one student studied the phytoremediation of arsenic and determined that a fern could bioaccumulate the poison, removing arsenic from the soil. In a follow-up project, another student studied the evolutionary relationship of that fern to others, and predicted which related ferns might be even better at arsenic uptake. She found one that turned out to be hundreds of times more effective as an arsenic accumulator, Zaikowski said.

Several of the projects have involved the South Shore Estuary on Long Island. The students’ research into water pollution in the estuary enabled the village of Patchogue to gain funding for waterfront revitalization and restoration.

And what could be a better motivator than that?


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

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