Struggling to fill your lab with students? Dr. Steven Stevenson is asking you to think outside the chemical box. Use non-majors in your lab – students benefit from the research experience and your lab benefits from the diversity.
Research is still expected, even at teaching-centric universities. Tenure-track faculty awaken each day to the tick-tock of a tenure clock. There are annual alarms for reviews and reappointment letters. The snooze button is not an option. We must seed, cultivate and grow a crop of research students who will blossom and bear the fruit of exciting lab results that are ripe for dissemination into journal publications. Our harvest will be external funding, right? Hopefully, yes, but where do faculty find such students to staff this ideal research group?
Chemistry is much smaller and graduates far less majors every year…With a limited number of students deep into their Chemistry curriculum, the pool from which to recruit is not large.
Purdue University Fort Wayne may resemble your primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). Chemistry shares the Science Building with a huge Biology department, its M.S. program and numerous faculty. Chemistry is much smaller and graduates far less majors every year. Although highly recommended, research is not mandatory for a Chemistry degree. With a limited number of students deep into their Chemistry curriculum, the pool from which to recruit is not large. Further challenges are mentoring juniors and seniors, who not only have jobs and other time commitments, but often are graduating just as the project finally looks promising. Finding an advanced student in Chemistry is one thing, but the student still has to actually say “yes” to research. Not to mention, other faculty may also want the same student in their lab. What now?
Is there an “outside the box” idea? Yes! Will it work for every faculty member? Probably not. The conventional approach is Chemistry faculty building their research group with upper-level Chemistry majors. Understandably, many faculty want majors to have finished General and Organic Chemistry as minimal pre-requisites. That is fine and dandy if your department has a bountiful and overflowing supply of these “course experienced” students. But what if your upper-level students are just too low in number to supply all of your departmental faculty members’ research groups?
I would open the doors of research opportunity to ANY student, at ANY grade level, of ANY major, and see what would happen. Off the deep-end I went, all the while determined to build my research group largely with NON-majors…
This situation can be a reality. It was for me in 2012. After yet another long and arduous day, I was doing my self-soothing therapy of chocolate glazed donuts and coffee when an idea popped into my head. I had this insatiable curiosity to change the narrative of preferential selectivity toward upper-level Chemistry majors. Instead, I would open the doors of research opportunity to ANY student, at ANY grade level, of ANY major, and see what would happen. Off the deep-end I went, all the while determined to build my research group largely with NON-majors, each of whom would be humble, kind, smart and curious students. Forget convention. I would be a nerd in rebellion. I named this my “Dig Deeper” approach, which would need a separate writing to explain.
In my annual teaching of trailer courses in General Chemistry, I typically have 95+% of my lecture students being non-majors. I noticed this as far back as 2011. Throughout the semester (i.e., office hours, hallway discussions, and in class), I would get to know these non-major students and think, “What a great student! What a great person! I wish they were in my research lab.”
Student majors outside of Chemistry do have diversity of thought. They bring to the table an appetite for problem solving from a different perspective.
Would there be advantages in breaking the trend and adding these non-majors to my research group? Yes. Student majors outside of Chemistry do have diversity of thought. They bring to the table an appetite for problem solving from a different perspective. Combining gender and major diversity has created good chemistry among my research group of mostly non-Chemistry majors. What I had not foreseen was the diverse backgrounds contributing to such interesting conversations and friendships among the group. These students bonded and grew to really like one another. This in turn led them to pitch in and unselfishly help each other with not only moral support, but also with project help. They want to be in lab together and look for opportunities to work joint shifts. This means more time spent in lab working on their projects. You get the picture.
Here is my point. Please do not overlook non-Chemistry majors as an option to building your research group. Look more deeply at the student, who has taken some level of Chemistry to be in your class in the first place. Whether or not a student is in their first year of General Chemistry or second year of Organic Chemistry, how much does this actually matter in terms of their ability to perform in your research lab? Because research has become so specialized, odds are that any newly recruited student, even Chemistry majors, will need specific training and mentoring for your research lab’s experiments, anyway. You can train any student to use a rotary evaporator. You can teach any student the principles, operation, and analysis of data obtained from your instrumentation (e.g., HPLC, spectroscopy, NMR, electrochemistry).
To date, non-Chemistry students in my research group have included those representing psychology, geology, biology, physics, biochemistry, religious studies, nursing, foreign language, human services, general studies, physical therapy, interior design, and engineering. Students pursuing professional schools such as pharmacy, veterinary, medical, and dental schools have also been part of my research lab. Since 2013, research by non-Chemistry students has led to their authorship in 8 peer-reviewed publications in prestigious journals and 31 presentations at research conferences (local, regional, and national). I mention this only to convey that, yes, adding diversity and using non-majors has worked remarkably well in my group and has far exceeded what I thought possible when I first started my “Dig Deeper” approach.
Have your research group be inclusive to all students on your campus no matter their academic pathway.
Especially if your department is under resourced, consider letting non-majors join your research group. If you choose wisely, non-major diversity could be a great recipe for success. Providing equal access and opportunities to all majors could surprise you with more productivity than perhaps you would have thought. Give these students a chance. Even if your research lab is only a small paragraph of one chapter in their life story, that is okay. It is supposed to be about the students. Right? Have your research group be inclusive to all students on your campus no matter their academic pathway.
In conclusion, I leave you with three points to ponder. First, you can make a lasting difference to other students besides just the Chemistry students. Second, student retention does improve with undergraduate research opportunities; this is true school spirit and a win for your university. Third, do not underestimate and overlook the value-add of non-majors, who likely comprise more than 99.9% of the student population on your campus. Consider ALL the resources at your campus. Why restrict your focus to the less than 0.1% of students majoring in Chemistry?
Dr. Steven Stevenson is a Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University, Fort Wayne where he does research with undergraduates on developing and isolating carbonaceous materials.