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Chemistry professor earns $1 million grant, set to improve intro classes

By Stephanie Shenouda, Managing Editor
Published July 2, 2014

The 2,000 students expected to take Chemistry 211 next year are in for a surprise.

Chemistry Prof. Anne McNeil was recently awarded $1 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to improve undergraduate chemistry education for the coming academic year. McNeil is one of 15 science educators to be selected.

The institute’s stated purpose in funding each educator is to encourage more students to engage with science, math and engineering and maintain American leadership in those fields.

McNeil's main focus with the grant will be revamping introductory chemistry courses at the University, namely Chemistry 211, an introductory laboratory course, which she believes are important because they’re required for many science and engineering majors and careers and are often students’ first experience in a scientific lab setting.

McNeil has observed that 37 percent of students changed their course of study after taking introductory chemistry courses, which she attributed to the class’s current nature.

“Chem 211 is a class that mostly freshmen take, either first semester or after they take General Chemistry,” she said. “The general consensus is that the class is kind of boring and not challenging, because it can be a recap of what students have already learned in high school, and many people lose interest.”

McNeil said students’ first lab experience should be engaging because it’s crucial for success and eventual advancement in a plethora of careers. She added that she doesn’t want students to decide against being doctors because they didn’t enjoy their first chemistry class freshman year.

Though time and large enrollment numbers have proved to be an obstacle in the past, McNeil plans to make the lab an opportunity for students to get excited about chemistry by allowing them the chance to make and test more of their own original hypotheses and creating lab exercises with more practical application, so they’re more relevant to students’ lives. One of the experiments she anticipates will be popular involves converting vegetable oil used in restaurants into biodiesel.

While a large portion of higher education funding is generally allocated for graduate students, McNeil said she believes investing in undergraduate education is important because it’s the time that students begin fostering their interests and deciding on careers.

“It’s a really unique program, but my interest is largely personal because I had a really fantastic undergraduate experience, and it’s important that other people can have that as well,” she said. “If you’re not excited and enjoying science in undergrad, you’re not going to want to go to grad school, or do research and have those opportunities.”

In the next five years, beyond revamping Chem 211, McNeil plans to apply these concepts to classes offered at the University, and to Washtenaw Community College students through summer immersion programs. She also hopes to create a two-week summer program for high school students —including a hands-on lab — to foster and encourage an interest in science.