$1M grant to improve undergraduate chemistry education


A University of Michigan professor of chemistry and engineering is among the 15 scientist educators selected as Howard Hughes Medical Institute professors, the institute announced Monday.

With a five-year, $1 million grant for science education, Anne McNeil will revamp a chemistry prerequisite, start a research partnership with Washtenaw Community College and launch a summer science program for high school students.

Anne McNeil

McNeil, an Arthur F. Thurnau professor, is an associate professor of chemistry in LSA, as well as macromolecular science and engineering in the College of Engineering.

“I was fortunate because I entered college with a passion for science and I had an amazing professor for my first semester chemistry course,” McNeil wrote in her HHMI proposal. “As a professor of introductory chemistry courses, I have both the opportunity and responsibility to excite and nurture a similar passion for science in the approximately 300 undergraduates I teach each year.”

She plans to bring the real world into the classroom to help engage students in Chemistry 211, a requirement for those majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. Roughly 2,000 students take 211 each year in large lectures, smaller discussion sections and lab periods. While McNeil sees this as an “extraordinary opportunity to nurture and transform how these students view science” she believes it’s falling short. She found that 37 percent of those who sign up for a sequence of courses required for many STEM majors discontinue the sequence after they take the class.

“National trends show this can happen in response to uninspiring intro classes,” McNeil said, “but I was shocked at the number.”

The course is the first lab experience for many students, so it has to cover a lot of basics. “You can’t exactly set up a complicated reaction from the start,” McNeil said. “They have to learn how to pipette first.”

Her plan is to come up with simple but interesting experiments that utilize crowdsourcing and focus on renewable resources. Instead of running chromatography on a Sharpie marker, for example, they might convert waste vegetable oil from a local restaurant into biodiesel for an area farmer’s machinery. Students will help design and tweak the experiments. They can share their data and look for patterns. That’s where the crowdsourcing comes in.

Transforming the U-M class will be McNeil’s initial focus. In future years, she’ll work to attract more Washtenaw Community College students to pursue chemistry-related degrees at U-M through summer research experience programs, advising and other means. She’ll also start a summer polymer science program for high school students. The two-week course will involve a hands-on lab.

McNeil’s efforts and those of all the researchers selected for HHMI professorships aim to drive more students into science, engineering and math to maintain American leadership in those fields.

“Much of the responsibility for sustaining excellence in science falls on the nation’s research universities, home to some of the world’s best scientists, and attended by some of the nation’s most talented students,” HHMI’s news release states.

“These scientists are at the top of their respective fields and they bring the same creativity and rigor to science education that they bring to their research,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “Exceptional teachers have a lasting impact on students.”


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