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Research as learning

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Posted on Tuesday, 25 September 2012
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This is the first in a series of blog posts about the Student as Scholar initiative at UPEI.

It’s a new kind of class for UPEI. Chemistry 483 has no lecture. No classroom. Just a laboratory, a series of problems to solve, and an opportunity for students to put their skills to the test.

“When you work in a lab, things don’t always turn out the way you expect,” explains Dr. Nola Etkin, Chair and Associate Professor of Chemistry at UPEI. “But that has real learning value. I wanted to design a course where students were learning through their own research.”

Chemistry 483 was created three years ago, when the department realized it was losing contact with many chemistry majors who had completed all of the required chemistry courses before their fourth year.

“We realized that we didn’t offer a lab in fourth year,” says Dr. Etkin. “Students were losing some of the lab skills, and they were pursuing other interests. We designed Chemistry 483 as a course that would sharpen their skills, and keep them engaged in the program. It’s worked out well.”

In the course, students are presented with a series of problems to choose from, each in a different field of chemistry.

“And contrary to what they’ve experienced in previous courses, we don’t give them detailed instructions on how to carry out the experiment,” says Dr. Etkin. “The students need to dig into the research literature themselves to see how others have done it, select their own method, and carry out the experiment.”

Meagan Oakley is an honours chemistry student at UPEIMeagan Oakley is an honours chemistry student at UPEI

Meagan Oakley is one of Chemistry 483’s success stories. She entered the class as a fourth-year chemistry major and enjoyed the lab experience so much, she decided to come back to UPEI to pursue her honours degree.

“The class certainly got my foot in the door into the world of research,” says Oakley. “This is the aspect where I enjoyed myself the most. Trying to fit the pieces together and to make sense of the reaction intrigued me. Pooling resources such as textbooks, online journals, and opinions of other students to reach a conclusion was always rewarding. This is what made me finally realize that I want to do research in the future, and to do my honours would be the best way to get the most experience.”

Students in Chemistry 483 also participate in mock job interviews, and are required to take part in a community service learning project.

“Many of the students work with a school or daycare to give chemistry demonstrations to science classes,” says Dr. Etkin. “Students consistently say this is their favourite part of the class--even those who aren’t pursuing a teaching career.”

The course helps sharpen student’s lab skills; it also helps students understand the different options available to them in the future. It is certainly the case for Meagan Oakley.

“It is a great introduction to research if you are unsure about what you would like to do once you have your degree. It really helped me decide that I want to go to graduate school and pursue research, and it helped others decide that they are more inclined to following a lab manual to produce results. I would definitely suggest that this course be taken by anyone who is still deciding on their future.”