Innovative Chemistry Project Sparks the “Self-Learning Process”

Posted on: January 19, 2012

While teaching an upper-division Biochemistry course, Patricia Dos Santos began to notice something. “Students learn different concepts in Biology, Chemistry, and Orgo, but they don’t have a class or activity that brings all of those concepts together,” she said. In an effort to give students a chance to formally put the pieces together, Dos Santos developed the idea for a Poster Conference where each student would present research on a different biochemical pathway for the formation of amino acids.

While it was time consuming to meet with every student individually, assigning them all different projects triggered “the self-learning process” and motivated students to master their particular subject. Dos Santos noted that “the unique thing about Wake Forest students is if you set high standards they’re going to meet it; if you set them higher, they’ll go higher.”

Two class periods were devoted to the Poster Conference, during which half the class presented their research findings while the other half evaluated. Faculty members in the Chemistry Department were also invited to come hear what the students had been working on all semester.

“The students were excited and proud to present their own work and to teach each other about aspects of Biochemistry,” Dos Santos commented. “This is normally a very boring topic to lecture on extensively, but instead they learned it in a fun way and developed an appreciation for the subject.”

Patricia Dos Santos

One such student, Lauren Rajakovich (’11), who currently works with her former professor as a Research Lab Tech, raved about the assignment. “Doing my own unique project made me the specialist on Methionine Biosynthesis,” she explained, “and I use those skills on a regular basis, [the project] really put into perspective what Biochemists do.”

Many of Rajakovich’s classmates expressed similar sentiments on the evaluation at the end of the year, but the positive reception also translated to lively class discussion wherein Dos Santos aimed to drive home the application of these lessons learned.

“Science majors don’t always realize that their roommate who is an Art major may not fully understand the process of things in the same way they do. For example, being tested for the breast cancer gene, what does that really mean? So [the students] learn the fundamentals of these tests and then have a civil obligation to translate and communicate what that means to friends and family.”

One student reported back to Dos Santos that she was able to take this new-found knowledge and comfort her roommate, who anxiously underwent genetic testing. “At the end of the day, what an educator hopes to accomplish is not memorization, but real life application,” said Dos Santos, “that is what the Liberal Arts education is all about.”

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