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General Chemistry Redefined: Chemistry for the 21st Century

General Chemistry studentModern chemistry laboratories have witnessed many striking advancements in the past few decades as computers have been integrated into almost every facet  of the collection, processing and storage of measurement data. The introductory chemistry sequence (our beloved Gen Chem), introduces students to the fundamental concepts in chemistry as well as basic techniques used to mea­sure the properties of compounds and materials. After more than 30 years of tinkering with this course, the chemistry department undertook a major redesign of General Chemistry and its laboratory. In the Fall of 2012 the new curriculum was unveiled to the main body of undergraduate students (~2000!) that take it every year.

About six years ago, Craig Barnes, professor and former head of the chemistry department, saw the need to redesign the general chemistry program to fit the needs of modern chemistry education. A committee, composed of faculty, instructors and graduate teaching assistants was formed two years ago to begin working on this challenging project. They decided to look closely at the two main parts of the course – the text and the laboratory – and make whatever changes were needed.

“The General Chemistry lab really needed to be updated.” said Barnes, “Some of the current labs had not changed much in several decades, while the modern chemistry laboratory doesn’t look at all the same.”

To start the process, Barnes was successful in a proposal to the College of Arts and Sciences to outfit the Honors Chemistry laboratory with new computer interfaced lab stations, one for every two students. The next year 25 MeasureNet (MNet) stations were installed and Jeff Kovac, Professor and Director of the College Scholars Program, who has taught Honors Chemistry for many years, took on the task of developing new MeasureNet labs for his students.

“MeasureNet has allowed us to perform some experiments that we could not do in the past.” Kovac said. “For example, we can now use the MeasureNet advanced colorimeter to follow the kinetics of a chemical reaction spectroscopically. It has also allowed students to collect higher quality data that can be processed using Excel.” Kovac continued, “Modern science uses electronic, computer-controlled equipment, not the traditional glassware of the chemistry lab. What we try to do is to mix the older techniques with the more modern.”

After a year and a half of developing and testing new labs, the department felt it was ready to take the leap and introduce MeasureNet into the main General Chemistry sequence.  “It’s a lot of work to make such a big change in a lab taken by almost 2,000 students each semester,” Barnes said, “we also knew we’d have to rewrite the lab manual because you have to first understand MeasureNet, then you have to modify all the procedures that were written for hand data collection.”

General Chemistry textThere was also the question of how to fund such a massive overhaul of the lab. Barnes again went to the College and, with the positive responses from students in Honors Chemistry, was able to secure the funds needed to bring MeasureNet to the main body of UT students starting out in General Chemistry.

In total, the College of Arts and Sciences has invested over $500,000 toward the redesign of the entire undergraduate general chemistry program at UTK which culminated in the installation of 150 MeasureNet instrument stations in the General Chemistry labs with twenty computer hubs during the summer of 2011.

“Without the support of the College and upper administration at UTK we could never have even dreamed of pulling this off. This is a testament to the importance of undergraduate education here.” Barnes said.

The newly installed MNet system is a network-based electronic data acquisition interface. It performs data acquisition tasks that enables users to monitor, collect, store, and disseminate laboratory data, as well as share lab instruments. While there is still value in learning traditional lab methods, Kovac believes that it is essential to show students how things are done in both research and industrial labs in the 21st century. Each two students have their own MeasureNet station with which to collect data such as temperature, time, pressure, pH, etc.

“Having both used and taught with MeasureNet, I can honestly say that it was probably my favorite part of General Chemistry Lab.” James Humble, a recent chemistry graduate in the Chancellor’s Honors Program and undergraduate teaching assistant, said. “It made performing experiments, especially titrations, much easier and more interesting because we actually had time to think about what our data meant and to observe the experiment instead of simply mindlessly recording dozens of data points.”

“The laboratory makeover not only benefits the first-year students, but will help improve their preparation and success as they go on to take upper-level chemistry courses, “ said Al Hazari, Director of Undergraduate Laboratories.

Although MeasureNet gave committee the opportunity to review the entire lab manual, Barnes mentioned that it’s only one of the reasons why the manuals all need to be re-written. “The last edition was written almost 15 years ago. Most of the experiments needed major updates and several brand new labs were developed.”  Heather Bass, graduate teaching associate and student member of committee, said besides integrating MeasureNet information into the lab manuals, another major change is “making sure that labs and topics covered in section coincide better than in the past, so that students would actually see the material for lab before the actual lab itself. This way they have a better grasp on what is going on.”

While this was going on, the committee had also been working for almost two years to consider new text books for the introductory chemistry sequence and rewrite the lab manual for the course.  Along with the teaching lab make over, as part of redesigning the General Chemistry program, the Department also published a newly customized text book in collaboration with Pearson Publishing. With more than 60 pages added to the introduction, the text book is specifically tailored towards students taking classes in the UT Chemistry Department.

“We were able to rearrange some materials in the text book to meet our curriculum needs.” Barnes said. “What is really new is the section at the beginning of the book which describes our department, the curriculum and possible careers in chemistry to students just as they begin their studies here at UT.”  The added section also includes study tips, departmental information, tutoring information, and advising information for chemistry majors and minors. Although a lot of these materials were available online or through various sources, the committee consolidated this information and provided them to the students in one location.

“Many students need assistance while taking general chemistry, and although there are an abundance of resources available, many students aren’t aware of all the possible avenues of help.” Belinda Lady, graduate teaching assistant and member of the committee said. “Now instructors can direct students to this section of the custom textbook.”

The new Chem120 laboratory manual is in the hands of the students this semester with the MeasureNet stations in the laboratory.  The final touches are being put on the new Chem130 manual as it goes to the printers for next semester.  “Without a doubt we will find things to change and keep making the experiments better, but it sure feels good to have ‘version 1.0’ done.” the committee said.