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Dr. Rachel Narehood Austin

Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry

Dr. Austin teaches General Chemistry (~200 students) and the Quantitative Analysis Laboratory (~20 students), and runs a research lab with undergraduate students at Barnard College. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Austin met the moment by incorporating a real project with a client into her lab course, creating smaller spaces for conversation, connection, and community, and rethinking how we assess learning and teaching. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Austin did in her courses, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Incorporate a real project with a client

Adapting the Quantitative Analysis Laboratory course for remote instruction was particularly challenging because we were no longer able to access our lab space. I was fortunate that I had originally structured the first half of the course to focus on developing chemistry lab skills, and the second half of the course for projects in small groups. My students that Spring 2020 semester had the advantage of having done a lot of pipetting and titrating before we went remote, so my obligation to them was different in terms of what I felt they needed to learn next. While we could no longer be in the lab, we were at the point of the class where I wanted them to learn more about experimental design. In order to help my students meet these course learning objectives, I developed a real-world hands-on project inspired by my hairdresser, who had taken an interest in developing hair care products based on bergamot root. Together, my students and I created a consulting firm that would take on this challenge and make recommendations to my hairdresser on how to formulate shampoos and conditioners using bergamot root and package them in environmentally-friendly ways. My students worked in groups on different aspects of the project, and ultimately put together a consultant’s report and recorded a presentation for our client. Having a clear picture of what I wanted my students to learn in this particular course made it easier to improvise.

My students learned a lot in completing this project—they learned about toxicity and how to get information on toxicity, different kinds of measurements performed on soft matter, and other solution- and material-based content. I invited women experts to talk to my students about the chemistry powering advances in plastic recycling, bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based polymers, leading a sustainability-focused cosmetic company, and the business of green chemistry. I think the students appreciated learning something outside of the normal curriculum, and this project opened up an opportunity to do something different.

I don’t know if my hairdresser actually followed my students’ recommendations, but the project felt real and was not made up. It certainly was the best outcome I could imagine under the circumstances, where we suddenly went from working in the lab one day to not being able to walk into the building the next day. Overall, I was deeply impressed by how every student contributed and actively participated in the project. Students have shared with me that the class was a memorable and important learning experience.

Create smaller spaces for conversation, connection, and community

For General Chemistry in Fall 2020, we knew going in—although with only a couple of weeks notice—that the whole semester was going to be remote. While I typically would divide the course into two sections, that semester, I divided the course into five sections. This was to create smaller spaces for students to connect with each other as well as to ensure that students who were on the other side of the world with a 12-hour time difference could attend class at a more reasonable time of their day. It turned out that this also helped some students in our time zone who had familial responsibilities, such as a student who needed to drive her mother to and from work.

That remote semester was about just hanging on. While I was confident that I could still deliver chemistry clearly despite the new remote set up, my goal was to create environments in which students felt invested in learning. I had students write weekly check-ins about what they learned and what they still had questions about. They could also share anything else that was on their mind. I read and responded to all of these every week. I also created 6 small one-credit pass-fail half-semester special topics courses—Chemistry of Color, Chemistry and Racism, Chemistry of Lead, Chemistry and Covid, and two offerings of an Introduction to Chemical Engineering. I created these courses for General Chemistry students—although I also let other students join if there was availability—so there would be additional spaces to discuss these interesting chemistry-related topics outside of the General Chemistry class. I wanted this entire cohort of primarily first-year students, for whom this Zoom course was going to be their first experience with college chemistry, to still have a sense of community and excitement around chemistry. My student Lauren Babb and I wrote and published an article about our Chemistry and Racism course for the Journal of Chemical Education.

Rethink how we assess learning and teaching

Assessing students during remote teaching was challenging, but it was important for me to trust my students and listen to them. I know that’s not without problems, but I strove to create an environment that students felt was an ethical space. I’ve never curved course grades and I think that helps, because if a student cheats, to the first approximation, it really only hurts that student. When one grades on a curve, students sometimes deliberately sabotage each other, or tell each other the wrong answers—all that is horrible. And when students do cheat in that environment, it’s now a structural problem with the whole course. In my experience, when one trusts students, treats them as adults, and expects them to behave ethically, that leads to better outcomes than trying to police all of them. I approached that remote semester with this attitude, and while I had a few students whose answers were too similar on a problem set, I talked to them about it, but it otherwise didn’t impact anyone except them.

In addition to not curving grades, I share a detailed grading rubric from the very beginning of the semester, so students can calculate their grade at any point. I leave out discretionary factors like determining level of effort as those are so fraught with bias. What I do give my students is flexibility, such as the ability to drop specific assessments. I know what an A student in General Chemistry should achieve, and I try to help my students get there. Obviously not everyone does, but I continue to encourage them to do their homework, study for their exams, and perform as best they can. I know some instructors might feel unsure of what’s reasonable to expect of students, but after teaching for a few years, it should be easier to draw lines that one can share with students from the beginning. I’ve also told my students that they can get a C in my class and I can still write them a great letter of recommendation as those are different things.

Thinking about how things might be different in the future, I have found that the way exams are typically set up in most courses leads students to adopt study habits that are not very conducive for learning. It results in an artificial cyclical pace where students cram and only make use of office hours just before midterms and exams instead of studying and attending office hours more consistently. When we didn’t have exams, the class proceeded at a more even pace that was much less stressful. We just talked about chemistry Monday through Friday. Students still had to complete a self-graded online homework assignment due the same time every week, but the tenor during office hours was more enjoyable because there was the general sense of students just being interested in chemistry. I really like that so much better. 

We also have to be careful in assessing how well students learned that semester because of how challenging the teaching and learning context was. There was a lot of trauma all around, and students had different and varying degrees of challenges to overcome. It was a very complicated landscape. That said, I’m encouraged to see many of my General Chemistry students continue to pursue chemistry and science in general—just this past summer, I’ve seen them participate in our Summer Research Institute and attend my workshop on communicating chemistry through figures, graphs, and tables. Some of them have also gone on to major in Chemistry!

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Leverage Columbia’s CTL and Barnard’s CEP to have more conversations about teaching and learning.

My best advice is to talk to colleagues and others about teaching. There’s a real efficiency in taking advantage of the workshops and resources offered by Columbia’s Center for Teaching and Learning and Barnard’s Center for Engaged Pedagogy, and not to think that you have to reinvent the wheel every time you start a new class. There’s just a lot one can learn from other people, and it made me feel more confident in what I was doing in the classroom, which is hugely important.

Continue to explore new ways of assessing students.

My colleagues and I are interested in finding ways to evaluate students other than in 50-minute in-class exams. For example, my colleague Christian Rojas gave students the flexibility to sign up for any two-hour slot within a six-hour window to take the exam in person. I’m curious to explore additional ways to assess students more effectively. This has raised more questions for me, and I continue working to figure out the best approach for my courses.


Chemistry and Racism: A Special Topics Course for Students Taking General Chemistry at Barnard College in Fall 2020

Lauren Babb and Rachel Narehood Austin Journal of Chemical Education 2022 99 (1), 148-153 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c00325 https://pubs-acs-org.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/doi/10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c00325