November 2023 | Editorial
Engaging Students Through Chemistry Research
By Don Warner
My professional career has been dedicated to providing meaningful research experiences for undergraduate students. For the past decade or so, I have expanded this effort to include high school students. I do this because — and this isn’t hyperbole — conducting undergraduate research changed my life.
As an 18-year-old, first-generation college student, I enrolled in a large state university with the intention of taking a bunch of science classes while earning an English degree so that I could pursue my dream of becoming a naturalist-writer (hoping to become the next Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, or Terry Tempest Williams). Unfortunately, I quickly learned that I wasn’t prepared for college, and that an English degree wasn’t a good fit. I was lost in the large, 300- to 400-person introductory classes, and felt I had no connection to the professors and my fellow students. I became depressed and disinterested in school, and even withdrew for a term.
When I returned, I forced myself to study, attend class, become actively engaged, and try to do well. This was fortuitous, because one day, while checking an answer key for an exam, my chemistry professor walked by and struck up a conversation. She brought up an opportunity to conduct undergraduate research, and I soon found myself working on an organic chemistry research project alongside graduate student researchers. During the year or so in the lab, I didn’t generate any earth-shattering (or even publishable) results. However, becoming a member of the research group had a profound impact on my life. Beyond time in the lab, I was able to attend research group meetings, learn from seminar speakers, and present my research at a national conference. Importantly, I became a member of a supportive community, which made the large university seem smaller and more welcoming.
Soon I was actually looking forward to going to class, and began to thrive. I had found something I truly enjoyed and could envision as a future career. Thus, my career as an organic chemistry professor is a direct result of that chance encounter with my professor and the opportunity to conduct research.
A life-long impact
My story is not unique. As a professor, I have mentored many students who are transformed because of their research experiences. For example, I recently attended the wedding of a former student who now has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and is employed in the biotech industry. At the wedding, I was embarrassed by the attention I received from my student’s relatives. All of them, from grandparents on down, made a point to personally thank me for everything I had done for their son. When he first started college, this student was so focused on playing in a band and becoming a rock star that he was kicked out due to having very poor grades for too many semesters in a row. Engaging in undergraduate research provided this individual with much-needed clarity and direction.
Numerous published studies support my anecdotal experiences surrounding the educational power of engagement in research. For example, undergraduate research is known to increase retention, content knowledge, and interest in science and engineering careers.1,2,3 Additionally, at a Hispanic-serving institution, undergraduate research positively impacted participants’ GPA, satisfaction, knowledge, and skills.4 For students attending associate’s degree-granting institutions, participation in a year-long undergraduate research program resulted in increased retention in STEM and increased transfer rates to four-year schools.5
There isn’t as much information available on the relationship of research and high school students, but participation in an eight-week summer program has been shown to increase science self-efficacy, which is linked to increased science identity and a commitment to a STEM career.6 In our study on the impact of participation in the American Chemical Society’s Project SEED Virtual Summer Camp, we found that students demonstrated gains in professional skills, STEM identity, college preparation, and chemistry career awareness, all of which are anticipated to increase interest in STEM majors and careers.7 Further, if the research experience culminates in a poster or oral presentation at a scientific conference, as is often the case, an increase in research confidence, sense of belonging in science, and intention to pursue a research degree in graduate school are expected.8
Encouraging the next generation
|Figure 1. As part of the Snake River ACS Local Section Project SEED program, two high school students conduct research aimed at preparing monoclonal antibodies to test for low levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.|
Given these clear benefits, I encourage educators to engage students in learning about research opportunities. Ideally, involvement will occur early enough in a student’s education that the positive effects impact their education and career decisions.
For example, high school teachers can encourage students to apply to participate in the Project SEED program. Participants in the program conduct eight weeks of paid research in an academic or industrial laboratory alongside a professional scientist. There are research sites across the country, but not everywhere. Fortunately, there are a limited number of virtual research projects available that will accommodate a small number of students who live in areas without any Project SEED sites.
The program has several elements that are worth noting. First, participants must have completed one high school chemistry class. Second, preference is given to students from low-income households. Finally, once a student participates, they are eligible to apply for SEED-specific college scholarships.
I have been heavily involved with Project SEED for more than a decade at the local and national levels. I have worked alongside some fantastic students, and have seen lives changed as a result of Project SEED. If you live in an area without a SEED program site, I strongly suggest that you reach out to your American Chemical Society Local Section and ask them to start a site! The student application window opens in February each year.
Encouraging high school students to apply for participation in STEM summer camps offers another opportunity for teachers to introduce their students to research. Local colleges, universities, companies, and government agencies will frequently offer one- or several-week camps where participants learn new STEM-related skills.
This past summer, at my university, I offered a one-week “Anti-Cancer Chemistry Camp,” where students were introduced to medicinal chemistry via target identification, molecular docking, some organic chemistry (e.g., the Suzuki-Miyaura reaction), and target-binding assays. The camp involved actual research: each student attempted to prepare a new analog of a lead compound that had never been synthesized.
We did not know how well the organic chemistry would work, let alone how well the new analogs would bind to the target protein. The students learned that research is messy, never goes as planned, and that on-the-fly problem-solving and troubleshooting are the norm. While it was a stressful week for my helpers and me, the high school students all had a wonderful experience, and said they would do it again if they had the chance. While camps of this type frequently have fees associated with them, often there are scholarships and fee waivers available.
Finally, teachers can implement course-based research experiences into their existing classes. At the undergraduate level, these so-called “CUREs” (course-based undergraduate research experiences) are numerous and well-documented.9 A quick search turned up several examples of projects incorporated into high school science classes.10
A collaboration between a high school teacher and a college faculty provides an opportunity to offer a truly excellent research experience. For example, an AP environmental science instructor approached me about working with her students on their independent research projects. Because of this partnership, the students were able to participate in my university’s undergraduate research showcase. I helped the students design and print their posters, and provided guidance on communicating their findings to the broad audience who would be attending the conference.
The posters were shown to district-level administrators, and some of the students were able to give presentations to science teachers from other high schools as part of a district-wide training event. If your course already incorporates a research experience, consider exploring opportunities to include a poster session. Most colleges and universities host undergraduate research conferences, and organizers may be willing to allow high school presenters if they are partnered with a college faculty member.
I invite you to set aside some time to delve into the wisdom and inspiration shared by your fellow educators in this issue of Chemistry Solutions. You’ll have the opportunity to read about assortment of insightful contributions, including:
- The feature article, read about how a teacher worked on improving his mental health and how a discussion with fellow teachers led to him learning new techniques that you can try as well.
- A teacher who employs a trio of strategies in her classroom which collectively empower her students to take ownership of their learning journey.
- Hear about a high school chemistry teacher who incorporated science fair projects into her curriculum so her students could compete in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
- The story of a chemistry teacher who tackled the challenge of becoming a teacher in both a foreign language and country in her first year of teaching.
In closing, I urge you to seek out opportunities to engage your students in authentic research experiences. From an educational outcomes perspective, it is one of the best instructional practices. From my perspective, it can be life-changing!
1. Lopatto, D. Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE – Life Sciences Education. 2007, 6, 297-306.
2. Nadelson, L.; Walter, L.; Waterman, J. Undergraduate research experiences at different level of inquiry. Journal of STEM Education. 2010, 11, 27-44.
3. Seymour, E.; Hunter, A. B.; Laursen, S. L.; DeAntoni, T. Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: First findings from a three-year study. Science Education. 2004, 88, 493–534.
4. Collins, T. W.; Grineski, S. E.; Shenberger, J.; Morales, X.; Morera, O. F.; Echegoyen, L. E. Undergraduate research participation is associated with improved student outcomes at a Hispanic-serving institution. J. Coll. Stud. Dev. 2017, 58; 583-600. doi: 10.1353/csd.2017.0044.
5. Nerio, R.; Webber, A.; MacLachlan, E.; Lopatto, D.; Caplan, A. J. One-year research experience for associate’s degree students impacts graduation, STEM retention, and transfer patterns. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 2019, 18; ar25. doi:10.1187/cbe.19-02-0042.
6. Salto, L. M.; Riggs, M. L.; Delgado De Leon, D.; Casiano, C. A.; De Leon, M. Underrepresented minority high school and college students report STEM-pipeline sustaining gains after participating in the Loma Linda University Summer Health Disparities Research Program. PLoS One. 2014, 9, e108497. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0108497.
7. Nadelson, L. S.; Jemison, R. C.; Soto, E.; Warner, D. L. Cultivating a New “SEED”: From an On-Ground to Online Chemistry Summer Camp. J. Chem. Educ. 2022, 99, 129–139. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c00280.
8. Casad, B. J.; Chang, A.L.; Pribbenow, C. M. The Benefits of Attending the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS): The Role of Research Confidence. CBE life sciences education. 2016, 15, ar46. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.16-01-0048.
9. Dolan, E. L. 2016. Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences: Current Knowledge and Future Directions. Commissioned for Committee on Strengthening Research Experiences for Undergraduate STEM Students. https://sites.nationalacademies.org/cs/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_177288.pdf.
10. See, for example, Murray, D. H.; Obare, S. O.; Hagerman, J. H. (Eds.). The Power and Promise of Early Research. ACS Symp. Ser. 2013, 1231. doi:10.1021/bk-2016-1231.