seal  Purdue News

August 10, 2004

NSF center led by Purdue to give students early research experience

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue will lead a new federally funded center that will provide research experience to university freshman and sophomore chemistry students to increase their enthusiasm for careers in the sciences.

The Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education will involve faculty members from Purdue, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University, Ball State University, Chicago State University, which is primarily an undergraduate institution, and four other institutions that are either four-year colleges or community colleges: Olive Harvey College, Harold Washington College, the College of DuPage and Moraine Valley Community College.

"Research experience in the laboratory has been shown to be one of the things that gets kids really excited about staying in a science major," said Gabriela C. Weaver, an associate professor of chemistry at Purdue and principal investigator of the center, sponsored with a five-year, $2.98 million grant from the National Science Foundation's Chemistry Division.

"Normally, freshmen and sophomores can't get into labs to do research because they don’t have the experience they need to be able to be productive in a research lab, and they lack certain practical skills," she said. "We are figuring out a new way to give research experience to these students."

The center, which officially begins operating in mid-August, was created through the Discovery Learning Center at Purdue's Discovery Park.

"The NSF has a great deal of interest in making sure that younger students get research experience, but we can't just put them all into research labs," Weaver said. "They are not ready yet and there's not enough room to do that, so what we are doing with this center is developing what we hope will be a national model, a model that can be followed at other universities for giving students access to research experience through their regular curriculum."

Research has shown that the number of freshmen expressing an interest in majoring in the physical sciences has decreased over the past 25 years in the United States.

Weaver will head the center with Fred Lytle, a professor of chemistry at Purdue; Robert Morris, a professor and chair of the chemistry department at Ball State; Pratibha Varma-Nelson, a professor of chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago; and Donald Wink, a professor of chemistry and head of the chemistry department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

William Boone, an associate professor of science and environmental education at Indiana University, will evaluate the program's effectiveness.

The center will use "research modules" and a Web-based network of advanced, research-grade instruments connected remotely at the center's various campuses. Students will be able to operate the instruments remotely to analyze samples they create in experiments. The modules will be used in laboratory courses that are open to all science and engineering students, not just chemistry majors. Up to 500 students per year will participate in the program during the NSF funding phase, and the number of students could potentially increase.

Varma-Nelson said the center represents a major change from conventional teaching methods.

"Students participating in the project will do authentic research under the guidance of faculty members and advanced peers," Varma-Nelson said. "In other words, they will learn how knowledge is created in chemistry. They will collect data not knowing what the right answer is and will build confidence in their measurements by checking their reproducibility.

"They will reach a consensus on their interpretations by discussing, debating and persuading one another in groups just like scientists. Students will learn how to work in a team and those who facilitate will be trained in leadership skills. At Northeastern Illinois University, this project will help us transform the way chemistry is taught in the first two years. It is my hope that we will see improved retention and success rates in these critical years."

Wink said it's important to note that the center will include a diverse population of students and teachers.

"The multi-institution network that has been assembled for this program ensures that it will draw on faculty from many different teaching environments," Wink said. "This should significantly increase the utility of these modules at other institutions across the country.

"There has been particular attention to impacting a diverse student body, and the inclusion of so many excellent community colleges will also allow non-traditional students to experience authentic science research in their education. I fully expect that we will see students who will be led into a research chemistry career by their experience in center-supported classrooms.

"The instrumentation that will be available is state-of-the-art. Students will be collecting data that is the equal of any scientific paper today. In fact, some of the data they collect may later appear in a scientific paper with the students as co-authors."

The experiments will teach fundamental chemistry skills and concepts but will be interdisciplinary, involving the authentic research projects that are carried out by faculty in chemistry, biochemistry, chemical biology, medicinal chemistry, food science and chemical engineering at all of the center's partner institutions, Weaver said.

"We plan to have the first set of modules in development during spring 2005," Weaver said. "We plan to pilot these with small numbers of students in the summer and fall of 2005 and to have them in the classroom by the spring of 2006."

The program also will provide unusual research opportunities during summer months, said Ball State's Morris.

"After the students have completed the research modules as freshmen or sophomores, they will have the opportunity to extend their research experiences into the summer," Morris said. "This will enable the students to greatly enhance their problem solving and instrumentation skills and allow them to develop independent research projects."

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709,

Sources: Gabriela C. Weaver, (765) 496-3055,

Fred Lytle, (765) 494-5261,

Robert Morris, (765) 285-8060,

Pratibha Varma-Nelson, (773) 442-5669,

Donald J. Wink, (312) 413-7383,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page