Chemical Educators Overcome Obstacles | March 31, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 13 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 13 | pp. 37-41
Issue Date: March 31, 2008

Chemical Educators Overcome Obstacles

Professors who research chemical education surmount early skepticism to pursue a career they love
Department: Education
"I wouldn't change my career for anything," Bauer says.
Credit: Lisa Nugent/U of New Hampshire
"I wouldn't change my career for anything," Bauer says.
Credit: Lisa Nugent/U of New Hampshire

IT'S NOT EASY being a professor of chemical education. Colleagues in traditional chemistry disciplines sometimes discount the value of research about teaching and learning chemistry. Chem ed professors can feel isolated because they're often the sole representatives of the field in their departments. Furthermore, grants can be hard to come by, and experiments can take months, if not years.

But when asked whether she would take this path again if she had another chance to plan her career, chem ed researcher Renée S. Cole responds, "Most definitely." Cole is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg.

Despite the challenges, Cole and other practitioners who spoke with C&EN are dedicated and passionate about the work they do. They feel that they are helping advance the learning and appreciation of chemistry by today's college students. These researchers point out that their colleagues are increasingly likely to make use of their findings. And they note that professors can encounter difficulties in any subdiscipline of chemistry and that funding is currently tight in all fields.

"I wouldn't change my career for anything," says chemical education researcher Christopher F. Bauer, who is professor and chair of the chemistry department at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. "Frankly, I think I'm more productive in chemistry education than I would have been if I'd stayed in analytical."

Bauer's university originally hired him as an analytical chemistry professor in 1981. After he received tenure, he recalls, "I sat back and said, 'What direction am I going in? What am I interested in doing?' " He began to answer those questions by examining his own work in the classroom. His quest to better understand dynamics in that environment brought Bauer into contact with others on campus and at conferences who were interested in education practices. In 1991, he took a sabbatical at the University of Northern Colorado, which was starting a Ph.D. program in chemical education.

All of these experiences convinced Bauer that he had an affinity for chemical education research. With the support of his departmental colleagues and his dean, Bauer says, "I essentially retooled myself to be able to function in a different direction."

Marcy Towns, an associate chemistry professor at Purdue University, also took an indirect route to the profession. As a high school chemistry teacher in the 1980s, she earned a master's degree at Purdue in chemistry with a chem ed focus in order to maintain her teaching license. Next she earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and then joined the faculty at Ball State University. There she taught chemistry while conducting research on teaching and learning. She returned to Purdue as a professor when a chem ed position opened up in 2006.

Both Purdue, whose chemistry department is home to one of the most respected chem ed programs in the country, and Ball State welcomed Towns's interest in the subject.

But Bauer says professors at other institutions sometimes encounter the attitude that chemical education research "is not a legitimate thing for a person in the chemistry department to be doing. Some folks are very suspicious about chemical education research because it's not 'chemistry' in the sense that they're thinking about it." They may question whether the chemistry department should be allocating resources to support education research, he adds.

"A lot of people focus on what students should learn and not enough on how we know they've learned it and how we can help them learn it better," says Melanie M. Cooper, a chemistry professor at Clemson University, in South Carolina. "A chemical education subdiscipline within a department can really help bring that to the forefront."

Bauer adds that "to be able to come up with good research questions about student learning in chemistry, you have to have chemistry as a background. So why not have a member of the chemistry department asking those questions?"

THE TENSION may arise partly because of the "two different ways of thinking about chemical educators," Bauer says. One is that "a chemical educator is a caretaker of students-someone who's competent, caring, knowledgeable, and who does a good job teaching," he says. "On the other hand, you could look at chemical educators as people who generate knowledge and who pursue questions that allow you to improve the quality of learning for the people who pass through your classroom."

When Cole began her career, she used group work, projects, and guided inquiry rather than traditional lecturing to teach physical chemistry and a chemistry course for nonmajors. Many of her colleagues were skeptical about her techniques, she says. Some maintained that she was "dumbing things down" and couldn't possibly cover all the material she should. But her students' test scores showed Cole's approach worked. "Having data to show that what I do is effective helps tremendously," Cole says. And "as they've read more publications in chemical education research and seen the work that I do, a lot of my colleagues have adapted what they do as well." Now, she adds, they "have a positive view of chem ed professors."

Still, there are not many chem ed researchers around. As a result, "people may not know how to evaluate them," Bauer says. "They may not know what responsibilities that person should have. Should they be treated exactly the same as faculty in traditional chemistry disciplines or treated differently? Sometimes there are miscommunications in the hiring, promotion, and tenure processes. We wanted to get people to think about this."

For this reason, the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Education organized a task force to survey attitudes and experiences related to hiring, promotion, and tenure in chemical education. Bauer and Cole served as members of the task force.

Towns (right) chuckles with Gabriela Tolimir, a freshman in her general chemistry course.
Credit: Erik Epp/Purdue
Towns (right) chuckles with Gabriela Tolimir, a freshman in her general chemistry course.
Credit: Erik Epp/Purdue

Bauer says the group recently finished editing a report designed to clarify expectations of chemical educators for job applicants and for the departments that hire them. The report has been submitted to the executive committee of ACS's Division of Chemical Education for possible presentation at the society's upcoming national meeting in New Orleans.

Cooper says she's seen jobs advertised for departments where the expectations of a chem ed hire are unrealistic. The ads give the impression that department members think, "We'll hire a chemical educator, and they'll do everything. They'll direct the general chemistry program, they'll do high school outreach and teach the elementary education majors, and they'll have a research program in chem ed and a 'real' research program in 'real' chemistry." But she's seeing less of this attitude and a growing realization that "one person can't do everything."

Cooper herself had "some very difficult times, particularly early on," in her own department. "The lack of clear expectations meant that everybody could make up what would be expected." Yet she overcame an early lack of acceptance and uncertainty about tenure expectations. She now has an endowed chair—her title is Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry—on the basis of her efforts in chemical education.

Purdue lays out its tenure requirements for science professors in a "document that is not filled with detail," Towns says. Promotion to the rank of associate or full professor requires a national or international reputation, respectively. Indications of that reputation include external funding, invited participation in conferences, and a healthy number of publications.

Purdue gives new professors a teaching-free semester during which they can get their research up and running. Towns took that semester last spring. With the help of teaching assistants and course supervisors, she taught two lecture sections of general chemistry in the fall of 2007 so she could devote the current term to research.

Central Missouri's Cole says tenure and promotion expectations at her university are the same for chem ed professors and traditional chemistry faculty. "You're expected to have two publications, presentations, and evidence in general that you're establishing a productive area of scholarship," she says. "Then you have expectations for contributions in terms of service and quality teaching." Each semester, Cole typically handles two lectures and two labs or three lectures and one lab simultaneously.

IN MANY INSTITUTIONS, chemical educators may handle more of the large, entry-level courses than their colleagues do. Cooper, who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry, actually asked to take charge of general chemistry at Clemson because she wanted to make some improvements in the program. Cooper also teaches one course per semester, a typical load for a research-active faculty member at Clemson.

The tenure and promotion guidelines at Clemson are the same for chem ed professors and traditional chemistry faculty. "You are expected to show evidence of scholarly work," Cooper explains.

"Of course, then you get into defining what's scholarly," she says. "We all recognize that papers in academic journals are scholarly, and if you're successful with the funding agencies, that's important," Cooper adds. "But in chemical education there are other kinds of scholarship. For example, writing a textbook could be scholarly. Developing curricula that you have evidence to show have improved outcomes for students could be scholarly. The problem lies in convincing everybody else that this is scholarly."

Scholarly research projects in the field come in many flavors and are often collaborative. Bauer studies the ability of college students to develop an understanding of chemical concepts, including aspects of the curriculum that affect student motivation. Cooper is studying what students do as they solve problems, how they could become better problem solvers, and why certain methods-such as having students explain chemical concepts to each other-are effective. She's also looking at how students learn to draw and visualize structures, why they have problems with this task, and how they can be assisted.

Cooper, who has obtained about $1.5 million in funding either as a principal investigator or co-PI over the past four years, is assisted by three Ph.D. students and one master's student.

Towns is studying student comprehension of biomolecule representations. She is also collaborating on a project to gather faculty perspectives on curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment in undergraduate chemistry labs. Towns has about $270,000 in funding and six graduate students working with her. While postdocs can "bring a greater level of expertise and productivity and can help you manage your group, they cost more," she notes. For now, postdocs remain fairly rare in the profession.

Cole and a co-PI just got a grant to study the effect of teacher-guided inquiry on the development of students' critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. And Cole, Towns, and another researcher recently applied for a grant to examine students' grasp of the concepts represented by math equations used in physical chemistry.

Cole faces special challenges in research. Because she's based at an undergraduate institution, much of her time is dedicated to teaching. Furthermore, she has no graduate students to call on for help in her courses or her research. With all the demands on her time, she sometimes wonders whether she should move to a different type of institution where she could devote more time and energy to research. To try to ease the burden, Cole included a request for funding for a postdoc in her most recent grant application.

ALTOGETHER, Cole currently has about $600,000 in funding for projects on which she is PI or co-PI. The funding comes from the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum & Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program and internal university grants. Internal grants are fairly typical in the field, she notes. "There aren't as many funding sources for education research as for traditional chemistry research."

And not all chem ed research is equal. Cole says it's easier to get funding for curriculum development or for projects targeted at K-12 students than to raise money to investigate how college students learn chemistry. "For a long time, people thought it was a nonissue," figuring that a student who was any good would be able to learn the material, she explains. But growing concerns about the lack of interest shown by U.S. students in pursuing science careers have loosened up funding for studying the process of learning, Cole says.

Other sources of federal grants beyond NSF include the Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). The National Aeronautics & Space Administration also funds projects related to education, although these tend to be for K-12 instruction rather than for college-level education, Bauer says. The Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation has also funded a number of chem ed projects, he adds.

Next generation
Cooper (right) discusses chemical education strategies with graduate students in her research group, Todd A. Gatlin and Sonia M. Underwood.
Credit: Santiago Sandi-Urena/Clemson
Next generation
Cooper (right) discusses chemical education strategies with graduate students in her research group, Todd A. Gatlin and Sonia M. Underwood.
Credit: Santiago Sandi-Urena/Clemson

But funding can be erratic. Cole notes that "most funding agencies do not fund continuing projects as is common in many areas of chemistry research."

Although Bauer had a $250,000 CCLI grant with matching funds from his university a few years ago, he's been unable to secure further external money. "It certainly hasn't helped that NSF funding collapsed recently, so the hit rate has gotten really tight," Bauer says. A lack of funding restricts his ability to retain graduate students and postdocs. "There's a lot of stuff that I can do entirely on my own, but the progress that I can make, the sorts of angles that I can take, are limited by time and bodies," Bauer says. "The other disadvantage in not having students is you're not preparing anybody to carry the field forward."

Alternatively, chem ed researchers can collaborate with investigators who have been awarded grants with educational components. In such a capacity, chemical educators can help with the assessment or evaluation component of the other professor's project. "The difficulty sometimes is that you may be working on somebody else's research questions and not really promoting and developing your own," Bauer says. The equivalent situation for an organic chemistry professor would be "to synthesize molecules that someone else has decided are important," he explains. "Then you become, in a sense, the hands to carry out all the research. It's possible to lose yourself in that if you're not cautious about your decisions."

Despite all the challenges, chem ed researchers are persevering. "It's harder to be successful in chem ed because it's not so well accepted," Cooper concedes. "But I don't want to give the impression that we're a bunch of malcontents hunkered down in the corner. Things are much better than they were even five years ago," she says. "I do think there are a growing number of very successful people in chemical education. We have come a long way and the future is bright."

Bauer adds that "the activity has been growing. More positions are opening up. There are at least 10 searches going on nationwide at the moment. People are bringing graduate students along. So this is a growing field despite whatever is happening with the funding."

Chemical education research is challenging and shouldn't be thought of "as a cop-out if you're not being successful in other areas," notes Cole, who moved into the field after earning a doctorate in physical chemistry. "If you really care about learning and how students think, and how to best teach material and develop understanding, then it's a fun way to go." But, she concludes, "it's certainly not easy."


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