Incoming freshmen will have a unique opportunity to experience chemistry in action this fall, thanks to the Department of Chemistry’s new Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). The initiative, which was developed by Assistant Head for Undergraduate Engagement Dr. Kate Masters, takes the form of a new section of Chem 111. The class is part of a college-wide effort across the Eberly College of Science to inspire students to get involved with research and participate actively in the scientific community at Penn State.
The chemistry FRI is designed to introduce students to critical concepts in chemistry and to make research more accessible to incoming students. “We want them to know that research in the academic world can be exciting, fun, and not intimidating,” Dr. Masters explains. To help her achieve that goal, Dr. Masters enlisted the help of Penn State chemistry alumna Cassidy Camplese. Camplese, who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry last spring, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in education at Penn State.
Camplese and Dr. Masters worked together to develop an innovative curriculum that brings the real-life research of Penn State’s chemistry labs to the classroom.
This fall, students will explore research being conducted by the Zhang lab, led by Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Xin Zhang. Dr. Zhang helped to design several projects for the students involving a molecule studied in his lab. Throughout the semester, students will make predictions about the compound and conduct experiments to learn how it works.
As Dr. Masters explains, the compound changes color and fluoresces at certain pH levels, making it an ideal tool to teach students about pH, acid based chemistry, and titration. She notes that they will also be introduced to chromatography methods, gain a better understanding of the concept of polarity, and learn more about how structure and reactivity relate.
“Overall, the main theme is studying structure-reactivity relationships via acid-base chemistry and polarity,” Dr. Masters notes, “They will eventually study different structures to observe and explain changes in properties based on structural changes.”
Students will also learn how chemistry makes a difference in the world and examine how their work can have an impact. Dr. Zhang plans to visit the class to explain the real world application of the research. “We want students to realize that chemistry is trying to solve problems that need to be addressed,” Dr. Masters adds, “and we want students to know that they can be part of that.”
This idea is certainly popular with incoming freshmen. The fall 2019 section of the course was full by the end of May, and Dr. Masters notes that the students she’s spoken to are looking forward to experiencing real-life research firsthand.
Although the course is full, the Department of Chemistry plans to offer it again during upcoming semesters. For more information, visit the FRI page.