To move chemistry education ahead, departments and programs must evolve. How that evolution happens, depends on the ability of a program to innovate new routes for student and faculty development. In this edition of Institutional Highlights, we explore an example of each: new opportunities for students at Arizona State University and a unique system of faculty promotion at Lindenwood University.
Innovation and online at ASU
The wide ranging temperatures in Tempe’s desert climate resemble the breadth of options for students in Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences. Despite having a program that is approved by the American Chemical Society (ACS), this is not a chemistry department by name. As the school’s webpage describes it: “In 2015, the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University became the School of Molecular Sciences to recognize the fact that modern chemical science now has profound impact well beyond the traditional disciplinary boundaries of chemistry and biochemistry.”
As Ian Gould, President’s Professor and interim director of the School of Molecular Sciences, describes it: “We are a school for molecular science and the only such institution in the United States.” Creating such a school came from what Gould calls “a deliberate policy decision.” He explains that by saying, “We believe that what we do and what our students do goes beyond traditional chemistry and biochemistry.”
In general, Gould and his colleagues think in big ways about how to organize groups of people, and here’s one example: “A department focuses on a discipline, but a school focuses on a mission,” he says. “We believe the old days of discipline-based education are gone.” In fact, Gould and his colleagues don’t even talk about interdisciplinary groups, but rather use the term post-disciplinary.
That’s the kind of innovative thinking that earned ASU six years at the top of U.S. News & World Report’s list of the “Most Innovative Schools,” but that’s just the start of what’s unique at this institution. It’s also the largest university in the United States.
In addition, says Gould, this school offers the “nation’s only fully online degrees that cover biochemistry and chemistry.” He adds that the online degrees come from “a separate section of the university, and that fully on-line degrees are separate from the on-campus programs.” Although such a program always offers more options to students, that is especially true while the world battles COVID-19. During this pandemic, some students will surely prefer an at-home option.
Although the School of Molecular Sciences does offer an ACS-approved B.S. degree, which is only available to on-campus students, “It’s not available online, because the B.S. degree is the normal route students take to graduate school, and we haven’t figured yet out how to give a good research experience online,” Gould says.
Still, the school makes good use of its ACS approval. “It is valuable when we negotiate with upper administration,” Gould says. “With this approval, we can make a strong argument for keeping class sizes small and maintaining a high number of teaching assistants.” He also points out that it’s nice for students to get an ACS-approved degree, but that for them “most of the benefits are behind the scenes.”
Some of that work behind the scenes also impacts Gould and his colleagues, especially in maintaining the ACS approval status. “It creates a lot of work for us, but I get it and think that the process is fine,” he says. “We do it every year to keep this status so that we can run our program the way that we want to.”
Building bonds at Lindenwood
In 2019, Lindenwood University’s chemistry department earned ACS approval. This liberal arts school in St. Charles, Missouri, enrolls almost 5,0o0 undergraduates from all across the United States and more than 70 other countries.
The Lindenwood faculty in chemistry really focuses on teaching. “All of the classes are taught by PhD- and Masters-level instructors, not graduate students,” says Jennifer Firestine, professor of chemistry and division director of physical sciences. Plus, the instructors work in a system that really encourages continuous improvement, because Lindenwood University does not grant tenure. “We have a merit-based system,” Firestine says. “The university issues yearly contracts to faculty based on performance and institutional need.”
To some faculty members, this might not sound like much job security, but Firestine says, “I feel this system is very similar, if not more security, than I would find working in industry.” She adds, “There is a transparent non-renewal policy laid out in the guidebook, which provides job security based on years of service.”
When asked how this system impacts recruiting and retaining faculty members, Firestine says, “Faculty members continually know where they stand with annual reviews and are able to negotiate contracts at any time.” She adds, “This system has not seemed to hinder the recruitment and retention of quality faculty.”
Plus, the ACS-approval status is already paying off for the department. For one thing, it helped the department lobby for and purchase an NMR spectrometer. Plus, Firestine notes that ACS approval helped the department add more research opportunities. “We found that the research didn’t need to be cutting-edge science,” she says. “Even smaller increases in scientific knowledge provide big increases in student learning.”
Although the ACS-approval is only one-year-old at Lindenwood, the students already appreciate it. For example, Jessica Rosenstein says, “I have found that the ACS certification comes with many significant benefits and is a valuable asset for ambitious undergraduate chemists.” She notes that “this degree pathway offers opportunities for advanced laboratory experience and a broad range of course work that provides both a stimulating challenge for students and an arsenal of knowledge necessary to successfully pursue graduate and professional level work in a variety of chemistry-based fields.”
Another chemistry student at Lindenwood, Erin Brooks, agrees—calling the ACS-approved degree an opportunity for “a well-rounded education both in the classroom and in the laboratory.” Brooks adds that “students are able to learn the concepts that are needed for success in graduate and professional schools, while also homing in on their laboratory skills and techniques that will make them successful in hands-on careers.”
Beyond students working so closely with faculty at Lindenwood, students can reach out for more interactions through the approved program. As Brooks explains: “Being a part of ACS while in school also opens up a connection to a network of other chemists that can assist and advise students in their future endeavors.”
Going through the process for ACS approval took some time at Lindenwood, but served more than one purpose. “We had to go through a preliminary application several times,” Firestine explains, “but it showed us what we didn’t have.”
With just a year of ACS approval, it’s too early to determine all of the potential benefits to Lindenwood, but Firestine is very optimistic. “Although we are not a nationally well-known university, ACS approval shows that our students come from a department that meets many modern requirements.” As she concludes, “ACS approval is a big star for our chemistry department!”