Finding the right formula for a community of chemists


ANN ARBOR, Mich.---University of Michigan chemistry students and professors are trying to come up with a formula, and not the kind that describes a chemical compound. Through a series of initiatives, they're exploring ways to create a sense of community in their department by shaking up the usual organizational structure and introducing new curriculum requirements.

Typically, departments that grant doctoral degrees in the sciences are organized into research groups, and students tend to interact only with people in their own group, rarely venturing beyond their lab cluster. As a result, "the department as a whole can become very fragmented," said Gorka Peris, one of two graduate students who will discuss the project August 24 at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia. "Our objective is to build a larger, multidisciplinary community in the department by creating programs, physical areas and social settings that encourage interaction."

For example, Peris helped organize a daylong conference at which U-M students from all chemistry specialties presented their research to the whole department. At least one new collaboration between research groups resulted, and students found themselves mingling and sharing ideas with peers they otherwise might not have met, said graduate student Robyn Gdula, who also will discuss the project at ACS.

Another innovation is the research rotation, which requires incoming doctoral students to work in at least two research groups before settling into one lab. Holding regular social events in the chemistry building atrium and setting up offices for all first-year grad students in a common area also have helped unite students with diverse academic interests, said Gdula.

The benefits of increasing interactions across the department are many, Peris said. Students develop better teamwork and communication skills and have more opportunities for teaching, mentoring and learning. The sense of belonging to a community also helps reinforce ethical behavior, he said.

With several community-building initiatives underway, the students are in the process of formally assessing their effectiveness. "The underlying philosophy in our department is one of continuously examining what we're doing, why we are doing it the way we're doing it and how we can do it better," Peris said. "That's why a key part of the project is continuing to check our objectives and evaluate how well we are accomplishing them."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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