published December 31, 1969

SENCER E-Newsletter, March 2004, Volume 2, Issue 7

More Than Just a Chemistry Course: SENCER Course Development at The University of Montana

By: Garon C. Smith, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry, The University of Montana, Missoula, MT,

As a civically engaged faculty member in a traditional chemistry department, I felt as if I were flying solo with my efforts to get the students in my introductory non-major's chemistry course involved in public issues. Then Gerald Fetz, dean of our Davidson Honors College, asked me to design an honors chemistry course that would take civic engagement of students to a higher level. In support of that task, he included me on the campus team that attended the January 2002 AAC&U national meeting in Washington, DC. I attended my first SENCER workshop and knew immediately that I had found a home.

The University of Montana (UM) team received a SENCER Award to develop two sets of courses embodying SENCER ideals, one at the introductory level, the second at the upper division level. The lower division courses also contain a 20-student Freshman Interest Group (FIG), UM's name for freshman learning communities that meet during the Fall semester. Our SENCER FIG was comprised of students enrolled in Chemistry 151N (General and Inorganic Chemistry for non-majors), Environmental Studies 101N Environmental Science) and Geography 103S (World Regional Geography). All three courses fulfill General Education requirements. The FIG met twice a week - once as an "honors" recitation in chemistry and once as an interdisciplinary seminar. I piloted some SENCER ideas in my honors section (22 students) and general lecture (412 students) during the Fall 2002. Those that worked, I repeated in my Spring 2003 course (168 students). This past semester, the freshman FIG (16 students) and the CHEM 151 course (410 students) were offered for the first time.

For the most part, students in CHEM 151 are enrolled because the course is required for their majors, e.g., forestry, wildlife biology, pre-nursing, medical technology, physical therapy, health and human performance. I try to reinforce how personally important their chosen careers are to me. On the first day of class, I declare, "I need GOOD people taking care of my trees, my wildlife, my parks and my family". (This was more immediately true than I ever anticipated. When I required stomach surgery several years ago, eight students from previous CHEM 151 classes worked on me!)

The course is designed to embody those aspects of chemistry that will be directly applicable to the students' future careers. With heating and cooling curves, for example, we don't just follow the energy changes as a 10-gram sample of some solid is melted and boiled.

Instead, we consider the heating curve of H2O to demonstrate why wildlife look for open water in the winter rather than eating snow for its moisture content. If a bird eats snow, it spends significant energy warming snow to the melting point and then melting the snow to liquid water. If it finds open water, precious calories needed for these "extra" two steps need not be spent.

Students get civically engaged at a number of levels. They apply their general interest in health and the environment to issues that are under debate and open for public comment - water quality regulations that affect fishery sustainability, air quality regulations aimed at protecting sensitive populations, etc - by the local board of health or state environmental commission, for example. Extra credit is made available to students who attend meetings or public hearings to watch science, health, and environmental policy being made. They get more points if they testify, send in written comments or submit a letter to the editor of our local paper. They love the sense of empowerment they experience! Two letters to the editor were published this past fall. As a class, the honors section participated in a state - level hearing on water quality standards for brine discharges from coal-bed methane wells. CHEM 151 students contributed more than 75 hours last September to the city's household hazardous waste clean-up program.

In addition to taking action on science policy issues, students are also encouraged (with extra credit) to participate in mentoring of young students in community programs such as our public school system's after-school Flagship program and the McKinney tutoring program for families that are homeless or victims of domestic violence. CHEM 151 students donated more than 350 hours last fall in helping their young charges with math and science subjects. Pre-nursing students are particularly drawn to this activity because it offers a chance to hone nurturing and communications skills. The community service is so personally satisfying that many of the student volunteers continue this work in subsequent semesters.

Awarding extra credit points has proved very useful in my course since it gives students an opportunity to "build up a cushion" or recover from a slip, both of which improve the general student morale. (The extra credit payback rate is 1 hour of service = 3 points of extra credit. The overall course grade is based on a 600-point scale, so it takes two hours of service to raise your overall course average by 1%.) During the Fall 2003 semester, students averaged 12.2 extra credit points.

You might ask: What does this have to do with learning chemistry? An unexpected, but welcome, outcome helps answer this question. It has been my observation that once students have invested in civic activities, they become more engaged in the course material to protect the extra credit points they have "banked." Thus, they work harder and they learn more. During the Fall 2003 semester, students averaged 12.2 extra credit points. At 3 points per hour, my 381 participating students contributed 1549 hours of out-of-class time on their civic engagement activities.

Course development for an upper division SENCER course sequence has also been progressing. An NSF CCLI grant submitted by Ed Rosenberg, Chemistry Department chair and SENCER team member, was funded by the National Science Foundation to develop a junior-level SENCER course for science majors entitled, "Industrial Processes and Their Impact on Society." To develop a text that teaches the chemistry and engineering that is involved in each of these businesses, this past fall Ed and I have visited with management of the Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation's kraft pulp mill, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, Semitool chip manufacturing equipment, and Stillwater Mines platinum group metals processing. These industries will become the sites of senior student internships.

Our upper division SENCER course will have science majors split into teams specializing in one of Montana's major industries. Some members of these teams will intern in each of the industries mentioned. The interns will learn the technical processes involved as well as look at the economic and environmental impact of these facilities. Back on campus, these same students will be involved in a junior level learning community course with students who are majors in environmental studies or water/land resource management, who will have interned with public advocacy groups and regulatory agencies. Students will join teams designed to shadow their real-world counterparts on issues being debated at the local and state level. We will hold class-level hearings and make a "class" policy decision before watching the real process play out. The final learning opportunity will be a critique of the hearings: Which individuals in the hearings were effective? What did they do that won the support of others? What role did "science" play in the decisions that were made? We hope to offer our first full-scale upper division sequence beginning in Fall 2005.

A question you might ask at this point is, "Haven't all these civic engagement diversions reduced the course content?" At least for my course, so far the answer is no. The bulk of the civic engagement activities occur outside of class time. I incorporate the civic engagement ideas and the expectation of some level of participation into my "announcements" at the beginning of the class. The class covers the same number of chapters and my tests have retained the same rigor throughout the transition to SENCER activities. Student enthusiasm for the material, however, has steadily increased if the quantity of engagement points the class accumulates is a measure. The constant weaving of content in and through the engagement activities translates into student excitement about the chemistry itself. It sets the stage for them to embrace chemistry, not shy away from it, when they encounter its applications in a subsequent course.

I have begun using the SALG (Student Assessment of Learning Goals) questionnaire as one of my evaluation tools. During Fall 2003, I offered my students a few points of extra credit for completing the survey. In gaining their credit, they gave permission for me to concatenate the survey with their grades on a spreadsheet so that I can study how their responses are keyed to their performance in class. I pledged that I would only tabulate the SALG forms after I had assigned and submitted their grades. While I have not had an opportunity to study the results in great detail, the SALG results reveal that my lectures were greatly appreciated (average of 5.4 + 0.8 on a 6-point scale). I also need not fear much competition from the students for my teaching position in the future. "Teaching science" earned the lowest score on the "Presently, I am interested in..." category -- an average of 1.8 on a 5-point scale. Students in the small honors section answered on average one category higher in survey areas dealing with the likelihood of pursuing a science career and becoming involved in most types of civic actions.

SENCER has undeniably been a significant catalyst on our campus for promoting civic engagement as a desirable student outcome.