Instrumental Methods Analysis Course: reinvigorating a dull and difficult course

March 24, 2015

At Loyola University in Chicago, Instrumental Methods Analysis was once a course notorious for being both dull and difficult. The only students who enrolled were senior chemistry majors who were required to take the course. Faculty dreaded teaching it. But when Dr. Alannah Fitch began teaching the course, she decided that things were going to change. Dr. Fitch searched for ways to reinvigorate the course, and hit on three ideas. First, she would tie the course to social issues. This would appeal to the religious values of Loyola, a Jesuit university which had recently put particular emphasis on its service mission. There were two issues that Dr. Fitch recognized in the community, and felt her students could help to address. One was the dearth of women and minorities in the science community. The other was in the Chicago community, where there had been an increase in lead poisoning among residents due to unhealthy levels of lead in city pipes.

Dr. Fitch s second idea was to make the course more exciting and relevant to students lives. She would do this by giving students hands-on experience with science, getting them away from the numbers and chalkboards of the classroom and into communities where they could witness firsthand the useful application of otherwise remote mathematical and scientific theories.

The third goal Dr. Fitch had for her class was to maintain, and even enhance, the rigor with which students learned. Each analysis required at least sixty samples, and six hours of preparation in order to be studied properly. When students were uninterested by the course, they quickly tired of the repetitive work involved in chemical analysis. But when they were doing real work to solve real problems, when people s health and lives were riding on the calculations being done correctly, students would understand the need to engage in that level of rigorous study.

Today, the class is anything but notorious. Each semester, fifteen of Dr. Fitch s students sample and analyze the lead content of a city site. Students have tested local parks and pipes, and presented their findings to the City of Chicago. One student from Croatia brought what he learned back home and taught others to analyze the lead emissions of different gasolines.

In addition, students provide an after-school program for a group of sixty children, many of them girls and minorities who are typically not drawn to science. Students present what they have learned and teach the children to gather lead samples safely. Upon teaching children, students often realize just how much they have learned, and are forced through a different kind of rigor, this arising from the necessity of explaining concepts in terms and ideas simple enough to be understood by elementary school children.

By incorporating service-learning into her teaching, Dr. Fitch has brought both rigor and relevance to a course that was once considered little more than dull and difficult. In the process, from Dr. Fitch s experience, students now learn more, retain more, and are more excited not only about their studies, but about the meaningful application of those studies to solve real-life problems.

From Service Matters 1998: Engaging Higher Education In the Renewal of America s Communities and American Democracy

Bio and C.V. for Dr. Fitch: http://www.luc.edu/depts/chem/faculty/fitch/fitchgroup/Prblurb/prblurb.htm

Loyola University - IL, Illinois
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