New Skool

I’ve been talking to a few professors lately who are doing really exciting stuff in the classroom. Instead of the normal lecture then homework format, they’re having students do in depth research projects during class hours. After half a semester of lecturing, the students break up into small groups, decide on a topic, and then develop a project. The professor is in the room while the students are working out the details so that the students are guided in the right path, rather than presenting a project in the end and getting half of it wrong. And they’re not choosing simple topics. The two specific professors (I won’t name them, but it probably wouldn’t be hard to Google-guess them) are focusing on conjugated polymers and paper electronics. New cutting edge stuff where there’s not a lot of information out there (that’s not written at the graduate/professional level). One of the groups in the polymer class continued their project after the semester ended and got a publication out of it! So not only are students learning about the cutting edge of science, but they’re actually contributing. (And they published open-source, which I think is also great.)

I really hope this kind of classroom setting catches on. Of course, this takes a lot of effort and time for both the students and the teachers and if the project turns into a full-fledged research project it could get expensive, but I think for students who are working toward graduate school that a undergraduate course like this would be invaluable. The first year for any graduate student is diving into the literature and learning advanced techniques, not really discovering anything new yet. This helps students develop their chemical intuition which imparts creativity and a quick understanding without having to search through the literature every time a problem comes up. After an in depth class that focuses on new topics and has the students doing actual research, the students will have already started to develop that chemical intuition.

Some people think that we’re producing too many science PhDs (see this post in Scientific American for a nice summary and debate in the comments). Maybe a way to counteract that would to be to produce better BSs, and going away from the typical lecture-based format will definitely help. Plus, it’d be way more interesting than listening to someone drone on for an hour then doing homework problems that can be googled.

Preceptor? Like in Harry Potter?

The University of Delaware is taking a hint from medical fields like nursing and pharmacy to join together two difficult topics: chemistry and biology. The goal is to help students learn complicated chemistry in relation to basic biology ideas, which C&EN reported in this week’s issue.

Basically, the program is taking graduate level scientists who have their Ph.D. or masters and having them act as a learning guide. These preceptors play a role between TA and professor. They’re in the labs and classes getting their hands dirty, but aren’t involved in grading or assessment. They’re mentors which give no judgement. Michael Weir, one of the preceptors, equates his role to that of a “friendly uncle” who will answer questions and solve problems without students being afraid of punishment. Students are divided into smaller groups (though still 48 large) and assigned to a specific preceptor. The students have more access to the preceptor as opposed to a professor overseeing a class of 200.

I really hope the idea catches on. Not only will the undergraduates have access to more personalized help (which I think is absolutely important for first and second year undergraduates) but the preceptors will have experience teaching at the university level. One thing I think larger schools suffer from is the larger class sizes, which is absolutely necessary unless you want a huge staff of professors whose priority is to teach rather than do research (which would cost more money and drive up tuition prices even more). Though I’m not sure that the preceptors need to be staff members as they are at University of Delaware. I think upper level graduate students who want to go into academia could nicely fill this role. It would give them a one-up on their resume, too.