Research Projects

The overall goal of our research is to develop evidence-based educational practices that teach rigorous chemical content and authentic scientific practices and make undergraduates’ education more accessible, more enjoyable, and more relatable.

  1. Consistency and Continuity. In order to reach our undergraduate students, we need to develop consistency in our programs and continuity for students as they progress through the UC Berkeley chemistry pathway.
  2. Early Intervention. We need to begin early. Intervention programs should start when students enter their first semester of freshman year. 
  3. Integrated Approach.  All interventions should share overall outcome goals and should be integrated into laboratory, lecture, and discussion portions of chemistry courses.


Documenting and Improving Student Learning in Undergraduate Research Experiences

Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) are widely believed to be a valuable, if not essential, component of undergraduate programs in the sciences. Many students participate in UREs and most institutions devote considerable resources to them, yet there has been little systematic study of the learning gains that students make during these experiences. To validate beliefs in the value of UREs, we are developing assessments that investigate the activities of UC Berkeley undergraduate students as they participate in undergraduate research. To develop these assessments we are characterizing how students connect the components of their research projects including scientific content, research questions, experimental design, data analysis, and interpretation. We are compareing how first year and advanced undergraduates differ in the connections they make between components of their research projects and use this information to develop and test a variety of indicators of the impact of UREs. We are useing ongoing research literature and results from our investigations of student learning in UREs from our work to identify interventions that we predict will improve learning of scientific practices and content.

Investigating and Improving Problem Solving in Organic Courses

We are investigating methods to explicitly teach problem solving to organic chemistry students. In a traditional lecture setting, this component of the education of student is often overlooked. As a result, students often have trouble deciding how to assemble their knowledge coherently to solve an unfamiliar multicomponent problem. Although there are some investigations of methods students use to solve organic problems, it is not clear what interventions are most effective for developing these skills. We are focussing on problems in which students are asked to predict the product of reactions because these are authentic organic chemistry problems that require a range of knowledge and skills to solve.

Our goals are 1) to document problem solving skills in novice to advanced students and 2) develop methods to improve problem solving skills .

To reach these goals, we are developing methods in a small discussion based section of organic chemistry. We will be applying methods to large lecture settings as the project progresses.


Green Chemistry and Authentic Practice in Laboratory Instruction

We began approximately 5 years ago to completely revise our general chemistry laboratory curriculum to focus on several goals: 1) teaching students scientific practice and the nature of science by providing a guided authentic experience, 2) integrating sustainability concepts into every aspect of the curriculum, and 3) exposing students to the use of the chemical sciences to address modern societal problems involving the environment, energy, materials, and chemical biology.

Research in laboratory pedagogy is an area of potential considerable impact. Although most chemistry faculty agree that laboratory courses and undergraduate research experiences are an essential part of the curriculum, laboratory courses and undergraduate research programs have not received the same depth of investigation as have lecture courses. Importantly, investigations of student learning in chemistry laboratory courses do suggest that a well-designed laboratory curriculum can have a large impact on students’ understanding of chemical concepts.

Our goals are that students 1) learn concepts and scientific practices of sustainability and green chemistry that students can transfer to future science courses and scientifically related endeavors, 2) experience chemistry as relevant to important problems for society, and 3) have improved attitudes and confidence in chemistry and science, which will promote success and retention in STEM courses.

We are investigating the following research questions:

  • How well do students learn from explicit instruction on the nature of science compared to the implicit instruction that is usually part of laboratory curriculum?
  • How can we encourage students to learn the concepts of green chemistry and sustainability and transfer what they learn to other courses or situations in their everyday lives?
  • How does this curriculum impact the student laboratory experience as evidenced by student outcomes (such as content learning, self-concept, and their ideas about classroom laboratories) and the learning environment (student-student interactions, instructor-student interactions, and student actions in the laboratory)?

    Quantitative Assessment of Graduate Academic Culture and Sense of Belonging

    In an effort to assess and address the pressing issues affecting diversity and inclusivity within the Department of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, graduate students designed a department-tailored academic climate survey. The goal was to gather data that could be used to facilitate progress toward a more inclusive culture.

    The results of this first academic climate survey emphasized a variety of key factors to improve on as a community. These include: prioritizing more female and URM representation at all academic levels; facilitating more frequent and productive faculty–student interactions; improving and better publicizing resources for students who struggle with mentorship issues; fostering a community where mental and/or physical health is a priority rather than a stigmatized topic of conversation; and helping members of our academic community feel more valued and included.

    In order to move toward the goal of developing interventions to create a more welcoming, inclusive department we are developing a quantitative assessment of sense of belonging (SB) appropriate for graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty. While SB is assessed frequently in undergraduates, research geared toward identifying and understanding the impact of SB among graduate students and faculty members is uncommon. We have developed a a visual narrative survey, comprised of illustrations, and have analyzed the results using item response theory to systematically measure sense of belonging along a linear scale. Results suggest that, in general, the entire academic community finds it difficult to feel confident in their capabilities as a scientist among their peers more than anything else—a phenomenon that reflects one of the large contributions to SB in undergraduate student populations. These results were used to ground a recent community discussion and brainstorming session, with the intention of continuing to build community and foster productive communication among graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty.

    Teacher-Scholar Program; Near-Peer Teaching and Mentoring

    The Teacher-Scholar program creates vertical learning communities — of introductory and upper-level undergraduate students, Graduate Student Instructors, and faculty —  in gateway majors’ and non-majors’ chemistry courses, including general and organic chemistry, at UC Berkeley. The Teacher-Scholar program integrates upper-level undergraduates into laboratory and discussion sections as apprentice teachers and mentors. The design of this program is based on considerable evidence that creating learning communities improves student learning, outcomes and experiences; effects that are particularly strong for students from underrepresented groups.

    The Teacher-Scholar program recruits undergraduate Teacher-Scholars who have performed at a high level in their chemistry courses, have shown leadership ability, and express an interest in teaching/education. They are trained in pedagogical methods, content knowledge, methods of problem solving in the laboratory, and course-material creation and evaluation. The undergraduate Teacher-Scholar (UGTS) works alongside the Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) in the laboratory, teaching content knowledge, specific laboratory knowledge, and acting as a role model for students in the laboratory.

    Our goals are to increase learning outcomes, improve attitudes about chemistry and experiences in chemistry courses, improve Graduate Student Instructor experiences, improve teaching skills for undergraduate Teacher-Scholars, increase interest in teaching as a career for undergraduate Teacher-Scholars, and increase the sense of community and belonging in introductory chemistry courses.

    In this project we have the following research questions:

  • Do near-peer instructors (UGTSs) engage in different types of interactions than student-GSI or student-faculty? Are differences in the form of vocabulary or topic?
  • Do UGTSs’ pedagogical skills improve over the course of the semester, including guiding students through a problem, asking students leading questions, writing high-level worksheet questions, and facilitating discussion among students?
  • Does UGTSs’ chemistry content knowledge improve over the course of their semester as a UGTS? What interventions facilitate filling specific gaps in content knowledge?
  • How do undergraduates’ relationships with Teacher-Scholars influence undergraduates’ motivation to remain in STEM courses and STEM fields?