Civic-Centered Chemistry and Biochemistry

To attract more women and people of color to major in chemistry, Texas Woman’s University (TWU) is seeking to address the gap by making clearer how chemistry and biochemistry address real-world issues. We seek to do that most dramatically in our courses for nonmajors, but we have also embedded new pedagogies and relevant problem solving as an unavoidable dimension for our majors. TWU is the largest US public institution primarily for women, with over 16,000 students and a student population that is 88 percent women. TWU is ranked tenth nationally by US News and World Report for diversity and our 2016–17 graduating class in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was 79.2 percent women and 25.0 percent African American, 8.3 percent Hispanic, 8.3 percent Asian and Asian Pacific, and 58.3 percent white. In contrast, American Chemical Society (ACS) members are 23 percent women and 2 percent African American, 4 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian and Asian Pacific, and 80 percent white.

The transformation to how the department teaches its courses today with a more student-engaged, hands-on, and civic approach to our subject matter began ten years ago when a TWU team of faculty and administrators attended the annual summer institute of the SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities) project in 2007. A science education reform project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), SENCER advocates teaching through unsolved public issues and incorporating civic engagement in science courses to enhance student learning. Over the past decade as more faculty from our department attended SENCER meetings and learned new approaches to teaching, civic engagement activities have been incorporated into all the science (SCI) courses for nonscience majors at TWU, including Sustainable Physical Science (SCI 1114), Climate Change (SCI 3133), and Community Conversations in Sustainability (SCI 3013). SCI 3013 is the first course in our certificate titled “Science, Society and Sustainability” and is team-taught by faculty in chemistry, government, and business. TWU has been so successful in adopting a SENCER approach to courses for nonscience majors that the institution now hosts the SENCER Center for Innovation‒Southwest (SCI‒SW), which serves as a resource for civic engagement and student learning among college and university faculty and administrators in the southwestern United States. In addition to hosting an annual symposium on science education and civic engagement, SCI–SW also visits other institutions in the region to present faculty development seminars and workshops on incorporating civic engagement into courses, programs, and undergraduate research. The way we reformed how and what we taught in our courses for chemistry majors has been propelled by the university’s 2012 adoption of an experiential learning program as our Quality Enhancement Plan, as mandated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, to invest in a sustained campus-wide initiative to improve student learning and retention. Thus, incorporating civic engagement into our majors’ curricula is aligned with university initiatives as well as SENCER and AAC&U philosophies. Further, it is incumbent on us to not only help students learn chemistry but also to develop important skills such as critical thinking, communication, teamwork, and personal and social responsibility. Incorporating civic engagement into our curriculum helps us to achieve these goals.

Although we had relatively rapid transformation of departmental courses for nonscience majors into civic-centered ones, it has been a slower, more deliberate process using different strategies to incorporate civic and social responsibility into the science majors’ courses (chemistry and physics) since the content is traditionally understood as being rigid with a strong emphasis on coverage. However, progress came more easily when we realized as a department that content will not be sacrificed if provocative civic questions are creatively incorporated into the activities of laboratory components for these courses. Further, it has been well established that linking content to real-world issues positively impacts student learning (Carroll 2012). What follows is a brief description of how we have incorporated civic engagement into our majors’ curricula.

First-Year Experiences for Majors

A typical degree plan for a chemistry or biochemistry major begins with a two-semester sequence of general chemistry, with both lecture and laboratory. Within those sequenced courses, we have incorporated several laboratory experiments that address, directly or indirectly, social issues such as sustainability, water quality, and safety while also teaching basic laboratory skills. The lab manual was specifically chosen for its emphasis on real-world applications, sustainability, and applied chemistry. For example, one of the lab experiments is converting aluminum from an aluminum can into Play-Doh, illustrating the importance of recycling and reusing and the importance of sustainability. Further, this laboratory course introduces the concepts of green chemistry to our students. Green chemistry is an ACS initiative to achieve 100 percent sustainability in the chemical industry by reducing chemical wastes, using more benign procedures for chemical synthesis, and reducing the overall environmental impact of chemical enterprises on the planet while increasing economic viability.

The issue of safety in these courses is civically framed as a personal and social responsibility. Students learn how their unsafe behavior can damage property and lead to injuries to themselves and others. In our department, as in the chemical industry, safety is the first priority. To assess teamwork in core courses, we place students in small groups to prepare presentations on safety issues such as safe lab attire, proper handling and disposal of chemicals, or how to respond to a spill or fire. In the context of civic responsibility, these students were told their work would be used for future safety training.

Second-Year Experiences for Majors

The second year of a typical chemistry/biochemistry major’s degree plan is a two-semester sequence of organic chemistry, which is the ideal course to expand the discussion of green chemistry while incorporating green principles into the laboratory. We started our path to greener chemistry after attending the 2009 Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference sponsored by ACS and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since that time, we have sent two students to this meeting to learn how to incorporate greener practices into the undergraduate organic chemistry lab. ACS and the EPA realize that the chemical industry has not always been concerned with environmental stewardship and, as a result, have developed twelve Principles of Green Chemistry to ensure better practices to protect the planet. TWU now has, for example, experiments that use water rather than hexane as a solvent (safer, less toxic reagents); use a microwave technology (less energy needed); and use sunlight as a catalyst (free, nontoxic catalyst). This year, organic chemistry lab students will also be developing safety videos specific to their course.

All chemistry and biochemistry majors are also required to take calculus-based physics lecture and laboratory courses. The labs incorporate civic engagement assignments. One of the projects focuses on understanding energy conversion. Students research a device (e.g., an energy-generating treadmill) that converts human kinetic energy into electric potential energy. Students compare human energy to carbon-based commercial electricity and learn why renewable energy sources affect the environment differently.

Upper-Division Experiences for Majors

Climate Change/ Instrumental Analysis/ Environmental Chemistry Project
Typical of most chemistry/biochemistry degree plans, our upper-division courses include biochemistry, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, instrumental analysis, and quantitative analysis. In order to embed a stronger civic dimension in our curriculum and to raise questions of public responsibility, we also offer environmental chemistry focusing on roles of chemical species and processes in both natural and human-made water treatment systems. As part of this course, through a partnership with Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa in Brazil, four environmental engineering students from Brazil visit us in Texas, and four of our students go to Brazil to compare wastewater treatment systems. This partnership emphasizes the importance of global perspectives on environmental water issues.

Another strategy we are using to thread civic questions of public responsibility into courses for our majors is to create thematic interactive clusters of courses designed for chemistry majors and for nonscience majors. Along with the Environmental Chemistry course, for example, this fall we offered Instrumental Analysis as well as an SCI course, Climate Change. The professors teaching those courses collaborated to create joint projects that involved all three courses. One project focused on water quality in our Trinity River watershed, the major source of water for both humans and wildlife in our area. Students collected river water samples at various locations for lab analysis. After recording the GPS data for the sample, simple tests for pH, turbidity, and oxygen content were performed on site. The samples were then taken to the chemistry labs at TWU for determination of metals, volatile organic compounds, and other contaminants by standard analytical techniques. Hence, students were carrying out a collaborative research project on a civic issue (water quality) involving collection and analysis of data as well as learning the content their courses demanded. Finally, these classes presented the results of the project on posters at a poster session, which is a way to engage a larger audience with a significant public issue that impacts the health of people, the environment, and public policies.

Presentations in Chemistry and Biochemistry
The department has a seminar course, required of all our majors, that includes two activities for students related to social responsibility and ethical behavior in research. First and foremost, all students must complete the Responsible Conduct of Research online training, which teaches ethics related to research. A second activity is watching the documentary Haber, the story of German chemist Fritz Haber. Haber fixed nitrogen that allowed chemical production of fertilizer to increase food supplies, but he also invented the first weapon of mass destruction—chemical warfare used with deadly force in World War I. At the end of the film, we discuss ethics in science and civic and moral responsibility. Students write a paper about the film addressing ethical concerns related to scientific research.

Undergraduate Research
Chemistry and Biochemistry undergraduate majors are encouraged to do research. The research projects in our department have their roots in civic issues and include the interaction of DNA with anticancer drugs, the design of solar energy collection materials, the design of optical sensors for environmental pollutants, and disease- and age-related applications of glutathione. Since the environment and health are capacious, complex public issues, students learn the potential and limitations of science in support of public policy formation.

Other Activities
All research students prepare posters for the annual Chancellor’s Creative Arts and Research Symposium, as well as for presentations at regional and national disciplinary conferences, to learn professional science communication skills. As part of their training, students are asked to prepare a second “public” version of their poster for presentation to general audiences. By learning to reduce jargon and describe highly complex scientific studies in a manner most well-educated people can understand, student researchers can be better equipped to share the significance of their work with others and are better at addressing problems collaboratively. As we guide students through the steps essential to acquiring the needed communication skills, we shepherd them from novices to becoming professional scientists. Simultaneously, they become better at sharing their science knowledge with the public and policy makers, an essential civic engagement skill for the scientifically literate in this century.

Graduating Chemists Who Apply Civic Lenses

At this stage in our infusion of civic issues, values, pedagogies, and skills for our Chemistry and Biochemistry majors, we have scaffolded questions of social responsibility across all four years. By introducing important civic issues into the first-year chemistry course, students are challenged to start thinking civically. We have threaded significant global civic challenges across several years through issues like energy sources, water quality, and environmental concerns about toxic chemicals. Students are challenged to consider how they might contribute to a more sustainable planet. By clustering civically rich courses for nonscience majors with science majors’ courses that focus on how to test water quality in a nearby river, students experience civic agency and the power of data. Communicating what we do as scientists to those who are not scientists is becoming more essential to enable an informed citizenry to make decisions for the public good.

We realize there is much more we can and should be doing to transform our department so our majors learn civic and social responsibility by design, not by accident. And we are excited to push toward newer frontiers in our reforms. While changes in the traditional ways of teaching Chemistry and Biochemistry are often met with pushback and require a change of culture, we can see measurable progress. We continue to invest in faculty development and to look for civic-minded faculty who are innovative problem solvers in our new hires. Ultimately, our graduates will be knowledgeable professional chemists who apply a civic lens to their practice of our discipline.



Carroll, Stephen. 2012. “SALG Results Show SENCER Faculty Achieve in Raising Higher Order Learning Gains." SENCER eNews. March 28.

Cynthia Maguire, Senior Lecturer; Nasrin Mirsaleh-Kohan, Assistant Professor; and Richard D. Sheardy, Professor and Chair— all of Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Texas Woman’s University

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