Thanks to a successful combination of hard work by a group of physical chemistry faculty and the support of an entire department, junior and senior chemistry and biochemistry majors at Texas A&M University are enjoying richer and more relevant educational experiences, courtesy of a new state-of-the-art laboratory that may soon be used as a model at other institutions across the country.

Discussions concerning a possible overhaul of Texas A&M's physical chemistry laboratory began nearly four years ago when Dr. Simon W. North assumed control of the courses, which featured many old and outdated experiments. With the help of other physical chemistry faculty in the Department of Chemistry, North made plans to implement new experiments that better reflected the state of modern research and highlighted strengths in the department -- all within a two-year-turnaround.

"There were several reasons why we wanted to do this," North recalls. "Many of the experiments were decades old. They were classic experiments that I had done as a student, and the equipment was dated. In addition, physical chemistry is the most technologically advanced branch of chemistry, and our experiments were not conveying the cutting-edge."

The new experiments are a far stretch from the former week-long physical property experiments. Thus far, students have been able to use scanning tunneling microscopy to study surface chemistry, study time-resolved excitation and emission of fluorescent tags in solution, and explore the photo-physical properties of nanocrystalline materials. Four new experiments have been introduced each year, each consisting of three-week modules that allow students ample opportunity to master a particular technique. The labs run concurrently, with teams of students rotating from one station to the next after a three-week period in each respective area.

North acknowledges that additional in-depth experiments means additional in-depth work. As one example, he says students are now required to submit their lab reports in a scientific journal format and are given oral exams to test mastery.

"The response we have received from students has been overwhelmingly positive," North says. "The newer students say that it is challenging, but that they ultimately learn a lot."

One such student, senior chemistry major Jamie Wheeler, describes the new lab as nothing short of amazing because of the many hands-on learning opportunities it offers.

"We are using modern instrumentation for modern research," she explains. "This is great experience to prepare you for graduate school. These are real projects. Also, because a lot of people have contributed to this, the students get a great overview of what different faculty members are working on."

In order to facilitate the redevelopment project, North says two faculty members worked as a team each semester. Each shouldered half the normal teaching load and used the remaining time to develop two new experimental modules -- an arrangement that has resulted in 24 weeks of novel experiments during the past four semesters.

"We asked faculty to develop experiments in their areas of expertise in order to develop experiments that reflect the current state of research," North adds.

The new labs and curriculum format has attracted the attention of the National Science Foundation, which hopes to use one of its programs, the Course Curriculum and Lab Improvement (CCLI), to take what the Texas A&M chemistry department has done to create a model that could be successfully transferred to other universities. In addition, North says the department has received several inquiries from other institutions interested in implementing similar changes to their own physical chemistry programs.

All attention and accolades aside, North is quick to point out that a lab revamp on such a grand scale would not have been possible without a significant investment from the department or the energy and enthusiasm of the many young faculty involved.

"Early on, we convinced the department head that this would work with buy-in from young energetic faculty," he says. "The only reason this project has succeeded is because a group of faculty worked hard together. There is no way any one person could have achieved something of this magnitude."


Contact: Chris Jarvis, (979) 845-7246 or cjarvis@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Simon W. North, (979) 845-4947 or north@mail.chem.tamu.edu

Jarvis Chris

  • Dr. Simon W. North

    Simon North and other physical chemistry faculty recently overhauled an old, outdated laboratory at Texas A&M University to better reflect the state of modern research -- creating a possible national model in the process.

  • Lab Practicals

    North (left) explains an experiment involving lasers to a group of his physical chemistry lab students, including Jamie Wheeler (middle).

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