At Penn State, studying chemistry means more than classroom learning. That’s why Penn State gives students of organic chemistry the chance to apply their knowledge in the instrument room.
Located in the recently-renovated Whitmore Building — the home of Penn State’s undergraduate chemistry program — the instrument room was designed to offer students a customized learning space. The instrument room, which contains two FTIRs, two GCs, one GCMS, two UV/VISs, and five NMRs, was the original brainchild of Professor Emeritus Bob Minard, who planned the room to give students a chance to operate equipment they wouldn’t normally encounter during their undergraduate education.
As Director of Undergraduate Instrumentation Dr. Sheryl Dykstra notes, exposure to advanced instrumentation gives chemistry students a leg up when they pursue graduate degrees or careers in the chemical industry. “We have a unique take on running organic chemistry labs,” Dr. Dykstra explains, “other universities often hire teaching assistants to run the instruments for the students...our method allows them to get hands-on experience.”
Instrument Room Supervisor Ronnie Williams adds that there are wide-reaching benefits to this approach. “Spectroscopy and its various applications are the primary means of ensuring quality standards for medicines, cosmetics, food, and other products...Spectroscopy is therefore a big part of the modern lifestyle in many capacities,” he explains, “we offer the opportunity for undergrads to run spectroscopic analysis on their own synthesized compounds, which is uncommon, especially when compared to other BigTen science programs...It’s a unique and important experience.”
In order to maximize the number of students who can take advantage of this unique opportunity, chemistry instructors at Penn State have designed an innovative organic chemistry curriculum. While many schools split organic labs up over two semesters, Penn State students take organic lab in one semester. This allows over four hundred students to experience the instrument room each semester, including students from Chem 203, Chem 213W, Chem 213M, Chem 431W, and some analytical chemistry courses. The instrument room is open sixty hours a week and staffed by a dedicated team of teaching assistants to ensure that each student has the time and support to learn about the instruments.
Dr. Dykstra notes that this time in the instrument room is extremely important to students. “We’re training them to be successful at the next level,” she explains, “learning to use this instrumentation with their own hands is very valuable to potential employers.” Although Dr. Dykstra emphasizes that hands on experience benefits students when they enter graduate school or begin careers, she adds that working in the instrument room builds soft skills as well. “They’re learning about critical thinking,” she says, “they’re building writing and problem solving skills.” Williams also touts the opportunity to gain experience with computers, “It never hurts to learn a new skill, especially if it deals with computers...students should take advantage of these opportunities while they’re here.”
As well as offering hands-on experience to students, the instrument room is also paired with a study space that hosts office hours and allows teaching assistants to help students work through problems related to the instruments. The space also allows students to study while they wait for their turn to use the instruments. It is one of the many special features that makes the instrument room an invaluable part of Penn State’s undergraduate curriculum.
As Williams summarizes, “The instrument room makes the students better scientists! If they go on to grad school and industry, it is not unusual for previous students to tell us how thankful they are of the advantage the instrument room gave them.”