REEL logo Research Experiences to Enhance Learning

Detailed Project Description

We have three Project goals: First, to transform the current 1st and 2nd year chemistry courses into a research-intensive program so students will pursue additional scientifically oriented training, appreciate the scientific and ethical nature of research, and adopt the scientific method as a lifelong problem-solving technique; Second, to increase the retention and graduation rates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields; and, Third, to generate new knowledge in the chemical sciences through multi-site faculty-student collaborative research projects that pool their results in a common data base.

To achieve our three project goals, the objectives of the OCUR-REEL project are to:

  1. Develop, implement, and evaluate two generations of Research Modules spanning three focus areas, biological/organic, environmental/analytical, and materials/inorganic, in 1st and 2nd year chemistry courses which are student-oriented, utilize discovery-based instruction, and provide for research-based experiences.
  2. Develop a flexible management structure that promotes communication and collaborative curricular programming for undergraduate research in chemistry.
  3. Build student learning communities in chemistry within and across institutions.
  4. Enhance the research capacity, infrastructure, and culture throughout Ohio by introducing Research Modules that employ accessible modern instrumentation.
  5. Facilitate access to site-bound instruments, promote intra-institutional student collaborative projects/discussions, and link results from Research Modules across the state using Ohio's ultra high-speed electronic Third Frontier Network.
  6. Disseminate information via a web-based resource to raise student awareness of existing research opportunities in chemistry and related areas of science.
  7. Integrate the Research Modules into the curriculum at all the partner institutions.
  8. Increase graduation rates in STEM fields by raising student retention rates in 1st and 2nd year chemistry courses by at least 10% over current levels and monitor demographic and graduation trends.
  9. Increase student participation by at least 20% in traditional undergraduate research programs, regardless of their major.
  10. Create a Faculty Enhancement Committee, comprised of faculty who teach the 1st and 2nd year courses and/or who recruit undergraduate students into their research programs, to critique and shape the new course structures.
  11. Increase the number of publications coauthored by undergraduates in refereed journals, poster sessions, and electronic journals.
  12. Perform a quantitative and qualitative longitudinal study that compares student outcomes in the current chemistry labs with those from the new research-intensive chemistry labs.
  13. Expand the Consortium membership by seven institutions by the end of the project, with a particular emphasis on community colleges.
  14. Disseminate OCUR-REEL's best practices and materials to relevant communities.

The American Chemical Society's Report on Exploring the Molecular Vision (1) questioned the effectiveness of current chemical education reform efforts, stating that "the changes that have occurred have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary." The OCUR-REEL Project provides a transformational opportunity that will impact all students enrolled in the large service courses in chemistry departments across Ohio, estimated to be about 14,000 students each year, and result in templates which can be transferred and sustained.

The central focus of the OCUR-REEL Undergraduate Research Center will be the development and implementation of a series of laboratory Research Modules (RM) for use in the 1st and 2nd year chemistry courses in 15 Ohio institutions. The initial development and implementation will be done by Module Development Teams (MDT) distributed over 5 institutions for each of three research focus categories, with a leader designated for each area.

Chemistry has never been, and will never be, an easy subject for many students. Most students in our 1st and 2nd year courses are taking chemistry only because it is required in their curriculum. Furthermore, students sometimes lose enthusiasm for chemistry and science because they fail to see the links to real-life challenges and opportunities (2,3). Thus, our primary challenge in these early courses is to help prepare students for the as-yet-unknown chemistry-related tasks they will face in their future careers and for their role as responsible citizens in an increasingly complex world of technological compromises.

Chemistry is, by its nature, an experimental science. An interesting paradox is that the cognitive skills that are neglected in most introductory level chemistry laboratories are exactly those needed for success in chemical research. Real research inherently involves a more independent and open-ended type of thinking which permits the frustrations of failed experiments, the challenge of learning from failures, and occasionally the exhilaration of successful experiments. (4)

This project will marshal the expertise of colleagues on 15 campuses to collectively develop Research Modules that will introduce research topics and concepts into the chemistry curriculum for ALL students during their 1st and 2nd year chemistry courses. The overarching goal of this approach is not to pick out a select group of students and involve them in traditional research, but rather to transform the way chemistry is taught in these courses to expose all students to the excitement, relevance, and concepts of cutting edge chemical research. The Research Modules will enable faculty to introduce a broad range of specific research projects. Furthermore, this approach will show students the relevance of science and technology to their world, by incorporating real-life collaborative research projects as a means of increasing student interest in the sciences and improving their readiness to apply general concepts to practical systems. This approach is coupled with a conscious effort to make these students aware of other research opportunities in order to significantly enhance the flow of undergraduates into existing research groups and programs in all areas of science, such as those supported by the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU).

Our premise is that only by becoming involved in an actual research project can a student gain the working knowledge needed to master that area and to appreciate achievements in other scientific areas (5). Some institutions introduce a limited number of students to research opportunities from the 1st and 2nd year chemistry courses, sometimes using research modules. Our approach, on the other hand, is to introduce smaller amounts of research to all students as they move through the 1st and 2nd year courses. Our model appears to offer an effective use of resources to impact the largest number of students. At the lead institution alone, we propose to introduce approximately 3000 students to research in our first quarter course each year by the completion of the project. The approach assures that the full diversity of students normally enrolled in these courses will benefit from the changes, and that even a student who takes only one course in chemistry will have at least a modest introduction to research. The longer students stay in the chemistry curriculum, the more intense will be their experiences in research, with an expectation that more students will then be trained for and motivated to participate in traditional undergraduate research programs. Additionally, the new and innovative Research Modules can be incorporated by individual institutions into their existing course structure in the manner and order which best fits their overall curriculum, thereby ensuring the sustainability of the REEL project.

Pedagogical Strategy

Research Modules will be developed in three areas, as listed above: biological/organic, environmental/analytical and materials/inorganic. In each area a subgroup of key personnel and institutions, hereafter referred to as the module development team (MDT), will spearhead the development and testing of new modules. Each MDT consists of a lead institution and four partner institutions, as delineated in Section II-A. The role of the lead institution is to coordinate design efforts around a central thematic area and also to take the lead role in testing and implementation. Partner members of the MDT will direct their efforts at developing related research explorations and/or developing complementary experiments that can be added to existing modules. Initial versions of the modules will be implemented in pilot courses at the lead institution of each MDT during the first full academic year following commencement of funding.

The lessons obtained from implementation in the 1st year will be used to (a) implement the modules on a small scale at each of the partner institutions in the MDT and (b) implement the module on a wider scale at the lead institution in the 2nd year. In the 3rd year module implementation will expand to all MDT institutions, along with concurrent planning and development of a second generation of modules. In the 4th and 5th years, we will scale up the second generation modules, as well as disseminate and implement the modules throughout the OCUR-REEL and beyond. Representatives of the OCUR-REEL will meet each summer for 4-5 days to report on progress and share experiences in module development and implementation. These meetings will also provide a forum for the Faculty Enhancement Committee to critique the module development effort to date, and to suggest future directions and improvements. As the module development process matures, the function of the summer meetings described above will shift increasingly to include the training of faculty and teaching assistants (TAs), and to spread use of the modules throughout the Consortium.

Project Impact

All 15 institutions involved in OCUR-REEL have some form of one-on-one student-faculty research mentorship for their chemistry majors. The idea proposed in the OCUR-REEL project is to introduce research as a learning tool for all 1st and 2nd year chemistry classes. Currently, about 47% of Ohioans have completed some college compared to the national average of 52%; but only 21% of Ohioans receive baccalaureate or higher degrees, putting Ohio 39th in the nation. Under-represented minorities account for 13.6% of the total Ohio population. Currently only 6.2 % of bachelor degrees in STEM fields are awarded to minorities at the major public Ohio universities. The average number of STEM graduates from OSU is 1,296 per year over the last three years, and represent 16.5% of the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded. Only about 40-50% of STEM students at OSU became involved in undergraduate research. The OCUR-REEL project should have a profound impact on the learning process of about 14,000 undergraduates per year at the partner institutions and result in significantly larger numbers of students being interested in pursuing degrees in STEM fields.


© 2005 Ohio Undergraduate Research Consortium. REEL is funded by the National Science Foundation, Chemistry Division