Research at the Freshman Level

In this post, Dr. Jeremy Burkett talks about one department’s efforts to get first-year students involved in mentored research experiences. During the first semester, a creative incentive motivates students to understand their science, followed by a second semester of original application. The result is a course-based research experience engages first-year students in the curriculum and in the community!

Honors General Chemistry as a research training ground

Dr. Jeremy Burkett (back right) working with some of his students

For some time now, the impact of an authentic research experience for undergraduate students has been undeniable. From independent research courses taken by upper-level students to faculty incorporating their own research projects directly into pre-existing lecture/laboratory courses, there are a variety of ways departments can insert engaging research experiences into the curriculum. Recently, with the implementation of a new university-wide Honors program, the Chemistry Department at Stevenson University has been exploring new ways of exposing students to authentic research, beginning at the freshman level in the yearlong sequence of General Chemistry Lab.

“…we redesigned both semesters of the Honors sections of General Chemistry Lab into a year-long continuous experience, with ongoing research projects…”

Dr. Jeremy Burkett

One objective of the new Stevenson Honors program was that sections of participating courses should intentionally include focused experiences that encourages students “apply different methodologies and approaches to collaborative problem solving.” To our Chemistry Department, this sounded exactly like undergraduate research! With this in mind, we redesigned both semesters of the Honors sections of General Chemistry Lab into a year-long continuous experience, with ongoing research projects that are both self contained and unique enough to be distinct experiences from each other yet related enough in content and technique so that the skills and knowledge gained from the first semester lead into and provide the foundation for the second semester.

“…we also recognized that providing an awareness of the goal of the research in solving real world problems would provide an additional incentive for them.”

Dr. Jeremy Burkett

The reason for research

In addition to the usual elements of research, we wanted to include an aspect of social advocacy in the first semester of General Chemistry. While honors-level students are generally motivated to do research for its own sake, we also recognized that providing an awareness of the goal of the research in solving real world problems would provide an additional incentive for them. At the beginning of the semester, we invited one of the faculty from our Education Department to present the challenges public schools in the Baltimore area face when it comes to the STEM fields. Local public schools (middle school and high school) face budget restrictions, student comprehension issues, and a lack of engaging experiences that result in fewer high school students choosing to pursue STEM majors when they reach the college level. We tasked our students with taking a high-level, exciting, college-level lab experience and adapting it to be able to be performed at the middle school and high school levels, in an attempt to increase secondary student excitement in lab courses. In addition to learning the concepts themselves, our students would have to develop an entire experience that could fit into the budget of a middle/high school classroom while also fitting it to the comprehension of secondary school students.

We tasked our students with taking a high-level, exciting, college-level lab experience and adapting it to be able to be performed at the middle school and high school levels, in an attempt to increase secondary student excitement in lab courses. “

Dr. Jeremy Burkett
Honors students present their work

Our students first began by reading recent publications that described the creation of carbon quantum dots. These protocols are fairly straightforward, but our students still needed several weeks to replicate the results from the papers they read, learning the foundational skills they would need before they started adapting these experiments. Once they were able to reliably create and quantify carbon dots, the real research began. The students had to investigate different materials and then design new lab equipment that a public school’s lab budget could accommodate. The students also had to determine the best way to quantify the dots, once they were made, since many lower level schools might not be equipped with the same types of spectrometers they originally used in our lab. Finally, the students also had to collect samples of lab protocols from local schools so that they could write up their own directions in a similar tone and style. At the end of this process, the students had to perform the entire experiment again, this time with all the new equipment they created and the protocols they wrote. They collected their results, compared them to their original work (when they used all of the “good”, college-level equipment at the beginning of the semester), and presented everything they had done as an oral presentation at an Honors symposium held at the end of the semester. In this way, the students really got to see that what they do in a research lab can truly have an impact on the world at large.

“The students had to investigate different materials and then design new lab equipment that a public school’s lab budget could accommodate.”

Dr. Jeremy Burkett

Raising the bar

For the second semester, we wanted to continue to build on the skills our students developed in the previous course. We began the semester by reminding them that their previous experience involved researching different ways to make carbon quantum dots, but they had yet to use their dots for anything. So, the focus of General Chemistry II would be two-fold: First, they would need to discover a new source (food, plants, rocks, etc.) from which they could create their carbon dots. Second, they would then need to then use their newly created samples and see if they could selectively detect dissolved metal cations in different samples of water.

Quantum dots with vivid colours stretching from violet to deep red.

For the first task, students spent the first part of the semester scouring the literature to determine what has already been used to create dots, quickly discovering that the list is extensive! Once they successfully found a source that no one had yet published, they then had to develop their own, novel protocol for creating the dots, since there was no paper that they could follow. By midterm, students had successfully developed protocols of their own and created samples. Their attention then turned to finding out if their dots were sensitive or selective enough to bind to various dissolved metal cations. Since there were no direct sources with which the students could compare their results, they had to really stretch their critical thinking skills and chemical knowledge when they analyzed their data. Unlike the oral presentations in the first semester, this time students created posters that detailed their work and presented them at the school-wide poster seminar at the end of the year (a first for freshmen students at Stevenson!).

Stevenson University honors students present their work

Overall, we learned that designing and offering these long-term, engaging projects helped to teach the students basic research skills. Perhaps more importantly, this experience helped them develop a sense of ownership of their work, a trait that helps to drive and encourage students through challenging projects like this. In conclusion, we all know that authentic research experiences are truly powerful things to expose our students to at any point in the curriculum, but it’s our opinion at Stevenson University that it can start as early as the freshman year!

Dr. Jeremy Burkett is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Stevenson University, Owings Mills, Maryland where he enjoys teaching in the Honors Program, upper level courses and engaging in research with undergraduates.

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