Connections: Enhancing Student Engagement – Q&A with Dr. Laura Serbulea

Dr. Laura Serbulea
Dr. Laura Serbulea

More than 50% of students who start out in science or engineering majors do not complete them. Dr. Laura Serbulea is working to change that. Dr. Serbulea is Assistant Professor of Chemistry, General Faculty, and Director of Undergraduate Program at University of Virginia.  She is actively involved in curriculum development with a focus on improving the coordination between topics in the lecture and the laboratory. Dr. Serbulea has received several education awards and grants including the 2016 All-University Teaching Award at University of Virginia and a “Nucleus” grant for STEM course redesign (2013). Read an interview on her approach to improving student engagement with chemistry.

What do you see as key drivers for the high attrition rate of students in STEM degree programs?

In the sciences, the effort required to achieve mastery is often much more than in non-technical disciplines.  For a student starting out, there are fewer connections to their existing experience that they can draw upon than in the humanities or business, and each topic builds on understanding of the previous topics so if mastery of one is not achieved it is hard to progress.

What are some of the challenges you see to maintaining undergraduate student engagement in chemistry?

If students cannot see the connection of how chemistry affects their everyday life, then they will simply memorize the concepts and try to get through the class.  If I can help them make a connection to how chemistry impacts their world, they become engaged and connect to the material.  I try to accomplish this by leveraging a broad range of teaching techniques to make sure there is variety in the curriculum.

What methods or tools do you find most helpful in increasing student engagement and retention?

I try to learn what topics my students are most interested in, for example healthcare, and integrate them in my lessons.  I use a variety of assignments and approaches that are diverse in topic and difficulty level and activities such as classroom discussions, brainstorming, problem-solving in groups, and tools such as CAS’s Chemistry Class AdvantageTM that students can use outside of class to extend their classroom learning and bridge lecture and lab.

What initially prompted you to implement Chemistry Class Advantage?

I liked the interactive and adaptive experience it offers.  Students get immediate feedback on their responses and guidance to close gaps as needed.  It also introduces students to the complexities inherent in real-world research.  Instead of simply reinforcing the core textbook concepts, the students are exposed to an expansion of a topic through the literature found in SciFinder®.  Chemistry Class Advantage offers an opportunity to incorporate cheminformatics tools into the curriculum and is included as part of our SciFinder subscription.

What outcomes have you seen from using Chemistry Class Advantage?

Tools like this increase student engagement by helping them connect what we are working on in class with interesting real-world applications.  These connections lead to deeper understanding.   When I compared student performance year over year, I found that in my accelerated organic chemistry II course, 15% more students achieved grades of A or B after Chemistry Class Advantage was added to my curriculum.  It has also helped my students develop stronger research skills and work more independently in planning lab work – which will ultimately make them better and more prepared candidates for their future endeavors.

How do you think students benefit from exposure to cheminformatics tools like SciFinder in their undergraduate education?

Introducing cheminformatics tools as early as possible enables students to further their investigation independently and lets them explore “real-world” applications of what they are learning that are most of interest to them.  This helps them to continuously make and apply the connections from the classroom.  It also elevates their conversations with their fellow classmates.  These tools also help them to be more independent in preparing for and resolving challenges with laboratory exercises.   These skills will last them a lifetime and set them up for success by being prepared with research skills.

Learn More About Chemistry Class AdvantageTM

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