Friday, October 7, 2016

UNO Chemist Awarded $50,000 from NSF to Transform Undergraduate Education

ChakravortyA University of New Orleans faculty member has been awarded $50,000 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to transform the teaching of undergraduate level chemistry and biology by working with a broad coalition of science, education and industry experts to establish a new standard for degree programs that integrates computational science into the basic curricula. Computational analyses and data-enabled science are cornerstones of research in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and this project is designed to help train the nation’s future STEM workforce with new skills.

Dhruva K. Chakravorty, assistant professor of chemistry, noted in his proposal to NSF that current chemistry students and some biology students are typically introduced to computational techniques as part their undergraduate training, performing computational tasks or maintaining a computer log of experiments. Students who seek out more formalized computer science training generally find themselves in courses designed for computer science majors where the emphasis is programming or software engineering, and these courses can be daunting to chemistry and biology students.

In an emerging trend, a few universities now offer computational courses for biology and chemistry undergraduate students, but these programs are at a formative stage and are largely instructor-driven efforts. These courses rely on teaching computation by using hands-on activities and project-based learning approaches that are specific to a student’s degree. Chakravorty, for example, teaches a chemical computing class at UNO. One of his undergraduate students, Edwin Gomez, has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and won an American Chemical Society undergraduate student poster competition.

Funding from NSF will be used to convene a workshop, tentatively in New Orleans, attended by a wide range of experts from the fields of chemistry, biology, computer sciences, education and pharmaceutical science. The workshop approach is modeled after a previous collaboration involving the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and NSF to integrate computing and engineering. Chakravorty wants to prioritize recruiting attendees from underrepresented groups, namely women and minorities.

The workshop’s chief goals are developing a common standard for computing topics to be taught in undergraduate biology and chemistry degree programs and recommending a common programming language or set of languages for these efforts. Additional goals include identifying a platform or repository for sharing related teaching and learning resources with the larger academic community and the means to train interested instructors who may not have a computational background. Participants will also discuss ways to encourage students to create their own research projects and strategies to promote recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities in these courses. Ultimately, the project’s objective is to transform the teaching of undergraduate chemistry and biology to provide a diverse body of students with opportunities to participate in data-enabled science.

Research funded by NSF falls into one of seven categories, or directorates, which support science and engineering research and education. Chakravorty’s grant comes from the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate’s Division of Advanced Infrastructure.