College of LAS « Illinois

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A Hands-On Future for Learning

Courses in science, technology, and math evolve for a challenging world.

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On a typical weekday, the Unit Operations laboratory in Roger Adams Lab is as it should be: A bustling, noisy, sometimes argumentative place where teams of senior chemical engineering students perfect techniques that will be crucial in a few short months at their first job.

This is where they learn the nuts and bolts of industry—the ways by which companies make everything from Cheetos to hand sanitizer to blended gasoline. One afternoon, Kevin Homann stands before a clear distillation tower constructed as a series of tubes and bubble-like compartments that reach the ceiling. His team is distilling ethanol from water.

“I’m actually going to be working with ethanol when I graduate,” he says, as vapors rise and condense throughout the tower. “I have a job lined up, and we’ll do the same process. So for me this is great because I’m learning stuff that I will use in my job.”

As industries rapidly evolve, statements like Homann’s are shining indicators of success for faculty and staff across campus. The University of Illinois is well-positioned to lead in what’s becoming a nationwide emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but doing so requires focusing on student needs—one classroom, research lab, and spectrophotometer at a time.

“Creating learning environments that foster expertise and leadership in these areas are a top priority,” says Ruth Watkins, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “And providing these environments requires resources—not just financial investment but creativity, foresight, and detailed planning.”

Learn by Doing

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They call calculus the language of science. Indeed, in the Department of Mathematics they’re discovering that one of the best ways for students to learn these fundamental concepts is to talk as much as possible.

In itself, collaborative calculus isn’t a novel concept. Whereas your father might have learned calculus by the old-school method—students sitting quietly in rows for class, speaking when called upon—educators since roughly the 1990s have come to grasp the importance of student idea-sharing in learning mathematical concepts.

What’s new at the Department of Mathematics, however, is how they’ve managed to improve discussion in large, high-demand courses where conversation can be unwieldy. Scott Ahlgren, associate chair of mathematics, says that while students at Illinois are exposed to some of the best professors in the field during lectures, separate discussion sections are where the subject has a chance to sink in.

Thus, by reformatting these small-group sections, the department is meeting demand and increasing performance. In “Calculus II,” for example, a required course for science and engineering majors with some 1,200 students this spring, discussion sections have students working in small groups to complete carefully crafted worksheets. The teaching assistant circulates the room answering questions, and she bases each group’s grade on one randomly selected team member’s answers, ensuring that students work together to learn the concept.

Earlier, smaller initiatives helped the department to identify the most effective format for these discussion sections and their ideal size (28 students)—one that balances instructional costs with the opportunity for feedback.

Katie Anders, a doctoral student in mathematics and a teaching assistant for “Calculus II,” says that this style of teaching is much more rigorous than conducting a lecture—on some days she might be crisscrossing the room all period answering questions—but as a teacher she feels she better understands students’ grasp of the topic.

“I feel like the students are a lot more engaged,” she says.

Prioritizing Undergraduate Research

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Of all the lessons Michel Bellini stresses to his students, perhaps the most important is this: Molecular and cellular biology is an experimental science.

That’s why there’s a sense of both urgency and excitement these days as the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) sees an unprecedented rise in enrollments and interest. Cutting-edge labs are more important than ever.

“We really need to be able to show students the right experiments, the right way,” Bellini says.

In practical terms, that means centralizing laboratories, and purchasing digital fluorescent microscopes, spectrophotometers, integrated teaching systems, and other equipment to ensure a hands-on experience for students.

Recent purchases, for example, include polymerase chain reaction devices, used in forensics labs to amplify small amounts of DNA into larger amounts that can be analyzed—a realistic version of the tools used to trace blood samples in CSI: Miami.

Melissa Michael, assistant director of undergraduate instruction, notes that other large public universities have been scaling back lab hours and even doing away with lab courses for non-majors. Not so at Illinois. Students begin lab courses early, and some 25 percent of students in MCB’s core lab courses are non-majors.

“We have been able to build excellent, rich lab experiences for our students, which help them get jobs even with bachelor’s degrees at places like Lilly, Monsanto, Kimberly Clark, Pfizer, and Abbott,” she says.

Creating Marketable Skills

Back in the Unit Operations laboratory, as if it’s not busy enough, chemical engineering faculty arrive to lead tours for prospective students.

This place is that important; in industry there are similarities in managing chemical processes whether you’re refining gasoline or making vats of spaghetti sauce. Students learn it climbing ladders and checking pressure gauges in Unit Operations.

Job skills are vital here. Some 70 percent of chemical engineering graduates go directly into industry after graduation, with most of the rest entering graduate or professional school, the Peace Corps, or the like. So, through disciplined planning on maintenance, timely renovations, and the use of external and internal grants, the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering has forged the future of the laboratory.

“All courses are in some sense important, but a course like this is especially important,” Professor Edmund Seebauer says. “Students take physics labs and chemistry labs earlier. But for a laboratory experience in chemical engineering this is the only one that they’ve got.”

Recent improvements came at just the right time, too—just like the Unit Operations lab itself, the future of chemical engineering at Illinois is a busy one. Enrollments in the department are at their highest in 30 years.

By Dave Evensen
Summer 2012