Chairs Learn, Share and Connect at ACS Virtual Convenings

“We’re all in this together...”

By Leslie Mertz for the American Chemical Society

The American Chemical Society (ACS) held its first two Department Chair Virtual Convenings in July 2020 as a way to support the higher-education community, while also allowing the chairs to engage with one another, said LaTrease Garrison, ACS Executive Vice President for Education. The idea struck a chord. Despite the unusually hectic summer, more than 150 chairs and other college administrators attended each of the two convenings: “Diversity, Inclusion and Respect” on July 21; and “Teaching in the Time of COVID-19” on July 29.

The ACS is planning to hold additional convenings on a quarterly schedule beginning this fall. “Our desire here is to be of service, to support and to provide a platform for communication,” Garrison said.

Communication is key to an effective professional society, agreed Jodi Wesemann, Ph.D., ACS Assistant Director for Educational Research. “Because of the pandemic, people aren’t able to come together and have the traditional in-person experiences at our national meeting, so the virtual convenings are helping to fill a strategic niche of connecting people from different types of institutions and regions at a time when everyone is so isolated, yet really needs to talk.”

Teaching in the Time of COVID-19

That “need to talk” took center stage at the convening on teaching, and particularly lab instruction, during a pandemic. “It was good to hear that we are all in the same boat and all trying not to sink,” remarked Akiko Nakamura, Ph.D., the new chair of chemistry at Gulf Coast State College. She added with a laugh, “It was also good to know that I wasn’t the only one who was panicking!”

Other chairs echoed that sentiment. “One thing I picked up from it is the knowledge that we’re all facing the same issues regardless of whether we’re big institutions, small institutions or somewhere in between,” said Philip Crawford, Ph.D., who has served as the chemistry chair at Southeast Missouri State University for 19 years. “Just from the conversation we had and hearing other chairs speak, I thought, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what we’re going through here.’”

To facilitate interaction among the chairs, the convening included moderator-led breakout groups that focused on one of three topics: plans for labs in fall 2020, and what is shaping those plans; lab skills that require a hands-on vs. virtual environment; and those aspects of lab instruction that are suited to an online-, virtual- or remote-learning context. “Under each topic, we then separated participants by type of institution, so schools that were primarily undergraduate institutions were in one group, master’s-granting in another, and then Ph.D. granting in another,” described convening planner Michelle Brooks, Ph.D., who is the Senior Manager for the ACS Approval Program. The resulting breakout groups – 15 in all — offered plenty of opportunity for participants to share ideas, discuss challenges, ask questions, and get a better sense of how the community as a whole is approaching the upcoming school year, she said.

The breakout groups were indeed valuable, said Penny Beuning, Ph.D., who became Northeastern University’s chemistry chair this past summer. “What I thought was very useful was just the tone of the discussion in our group: how at least some hands-on skills are really important, but there were plenty of things that students need to learn and can learn without doing hands-on,” she related. “That was encouraging, and I felt a lot better in terms of what we were going to do about labs.”

Nakamura was especially pleased with the nuts-and-bolts conversation in her group about different departments’ experiences with exercises and resources, including which virtual labs and even specific stimuli work best, as well as particularly helpful websites. “I already knew about many of the resources, but I didn’t know which were recommended from other chemists, so that was really good to hear,” she said. In addition, she noted, some chairs had resources available on their computers and made them available through the group’s chatroom.

Based on feedback from the chairs and moderators, Wesemann said, “I think we had small enough groups that everybody’s voice could be heard. And while it took some time to organize and facilitate, I think we succeeded at making the breakout groups interactive, and providing a platform for sharing advice and resources, while also getting a better idea of what else ACS can do to support the chemistry community, especially (in light of) the special pressures that are being faced today.”

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Respect

The convening on diversity, equity, inclusion and respect was broader in scope, but also timely given with the intensified spotlight in 2020 on racial inequality. For this virtual meeting in collaboration with the ACS Committee on Professional Training, the ACS led off with an address by expert Rigoberto Hernandez, Ph.D., who is director of the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE). A professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech, he is also the 2014 ACS Awardee for Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences and a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

After Hernandez’s address, attendees split up into breakout groups to discuss their own situations and concerns. “Academic institutions have different contexts, including different histories, and politics, student, faculty and staff demographics, so there’s no one ‘right approach.’ Everyone is wrestling with this,” Wesemann asserted.

A scheduling conflict made Beuning unable to attend the first convening, so Northeastern University’s director of graduate studies attended instead. “She came back with very specific information, and also liked being part of the conversation and receiving feedback,” Beuning said. The timing was also perfect, she added, because the department was planning a series of discussions relating to diversity “so it gave us some ideas of how to implement that.”

Likewise, Nakamura brought back actionable ideas from both the speaker’s address and the breakout groups. “It’s great to have speakers always, but in the small groups, I heard more about issues that we have to watch out for, and things that we need to be reminded about,” she said. For instance, some participants mentioned that faculty evaluations tend to include more severe comments for underrepresented minority groups, and that should be taken into account when considering tenure or promotions; and others noted that diversity-related committees should not only include underrepresented minority group members, but also those from the majority.

That is just the type of insight and discussion the convenings were designed to encourage, Wesemann said. “We are not far enough along on the diversity, inclusion and respect conversations, period, but by coming together, we can hopefully do some crosslinking of lessons learned and help each other figure it out in our own contexts.”

What’s Next?

With the first two Department Chair Virtual Convenings under its belt, the ACS is busy compiling and organizing the information for broader dissemination through its website. A summary of the Diversity, Inclusion and Respect discussion (PDF) and a web resource on Teaching Labs in the Time of COVID can be found on the ACS website. “Even though all department chairs could not attend the events, we are being very diligent in making it user-friendly, so people can get what they need,” Garrison said. “This will be beneficial to department chairs, likely worldwide.”

Based on comments from the first two convenings, the ACS is scheduling its next Quarterly Department Chair Virtual Convening in October that will give chairs more opportunity to talk about lessons learned so far and plans for the spring. “That was pretty overwhelmingly what people want to see with the next convening,” Brooks said.

For future convenings, the ACS is also gathering topic ideas. Crawford, for instance, would like to learn more about how offering virtual rather than in-person labs may affect ACS approval, while Beuning is interested in topics such as student engagement in diversity-focused discussions; career-long faculty mentoring either within a department or through ACS chapters, sections or divisions; and “managing up” (building smooth, productive relationships with higher-level administrators). Other chairs suggested a boot camp for new chairs, or tips for explaining to administrators the importance of returning to face-to-face labs post-pandemic.

Regardless of how the topics shake out, the quarterly convenings will have the same underlying goals, Wesemann said. “The convenings are helping to advance the conversations about critical topics essential to the future of the chemistry profession, and facilitate communications amongst department chairs from a range of different types of institutions and ultimately building a stronger chemistry community.”

Added Nakamura, “I think this is great what ACS is doing, and I really appreciate it.”

"The convenings are helping to advance the conversations about critical topics essential to the future of the chemistry profession..." — Jodi Wesemann, Ph.D., ACS Assistant Director for Educational Research