Revamped Chemistry C174 class offers students opportunity to think outside the box

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Students are following a new curriculum which allows them to pursue independent group research projects rather than simply following established lab procedures. 

The curriculum for the upper division “Inorganic and Metalorganic Laboratory Methods” laboratory class was redesigned by Professor Alex Spokoyny in 2017 to give students, who have already learned many lab techniques, the opportunity to work on projects with unknown results rather than “cookbook-type” assignments where they follow instructions and procedures. This quarter, with their successful results, one group of students co-authored a research paper in a scientific journal – an impressive achievement for undergraduate students. 

The class was recently featured in the UCLA student-run newspaper, the Daily Bruin.

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Chem C174 students pose for a photo with teaching assistants in the laboratory where they conduct experiments that they create on their own. Photo courtesy of Alex Spokoyny.

From the Daily Bruin (by Raymond Le) 

Remodeled chemistry course allows for student research, publishing

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 Students in a revamped inorganic chemistry class taught by assistant professor Alex Spokoyny were able to collaboratively publish a paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. (Ken Shin/Daily Bruin staff)

A newly revamped chemistry course allows undergraduate students to conduct independent research and publish a paper in a science journal.

This quarter, the chemistry & biochemistry department remodeled the curriculum of Chemistry C174: “Inorganic and Metalorganic Laboratory Methods” to allow students to pursue an independent group research project rather than follow an established lab procedure. Alex Spokoyny, an assistant chemistry professor who teaches the class, said most experimental science classes tend to focus on achieving a specific result through a concrete procedure rather than actually conducting research.

“One thing I thought would be cool for the upper division lab, where the students know a lot of techniques, was to give them something unknown instead of a cookbook-type assignment where they follow instructions and procedures,” Spokoyny said.

A group of students from last year’s Winter quarter class co-wrote a paper published in Dalton Transactions, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, on the efficient synthesis of air-stable dimer complexes with biaryl phosphine ligands.

Shen Yi, a graduate student in inorganic chemistry who was previously enrolled in the course, said her class divided into six groups to conduct an experiment testing catalysts. She said the different groups tried new methods to see which worked best.

“With each person having a slightly different job, it’s more about students doing different things in collaboration for a bigger project,” she said.

With successful results, the students were able to co-author the paper.

Kent Kirlikovali, a teaching assistant for the course, said once students complete lower-division courses and learn basic lab techniques, they can begin to tackle more advanced research problems. Students in the course repeat experiments to find the best results through trial and error, he said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for chemistry courses, specifically upper-division (courses), to have more research-based instead of old-school, procedure-type problems to promote collaboration and working together to think of solutions,” he said.

Kirlikovali added students take ownership of the class’ assignments because they could lead to publishable research.

“They don’t treat it as busy work, but their project as their project,” he said.

“It looks good on their resume for graduate schools,” he said. “There’s a potential reward in the end that they can say it’s their work and share it with the greater community.”

Yi said she thinks more upper-division chemistry courses should use this class model because it allows to students to collaborate with each other.

“Instead of professors telling (us) what to do, we ask each other, ‘What do you think?’” she said. “This is useful because chemistry is very research-based.”