WPI Unveils New Freshman Chemistry Curriculum and Labs

Contact: WPI Media Relations, +1-508-831-5706

WORCESTER, Mass. -- February 9, 2005 -- The freshman chemistry labs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) are stirring up a different set of reactions this year. WPI has completely transformed its first-year chemistry laboratory experience to enable students to learn chemistry through a real-world, project-based curriculum -- the goal being to teach students how to analytically approach problem solving and scientific discovery. The curriculum change was made possible by a $3 million renovation to the suite of freshman chemistry laboratories in Goddard Hall and a full upgrade in equipment and instrumentation.

The changes were officially unveiled last week to honor the generous gifts and grants that accounted for nearly half of the cost of the renovation. The laboratories will be known as the Fuller Chemistry Complex as a result of a $1 million gift from the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Foundation. Other contributors included the Pfizer Foundation, Pfizer Global Research and Development, the WPI Class of 1954, a number of bequests from WPI alumni and friends, and a personal donation from John L. and Mary LaMattina. John LaMattina is a member of WPI's Board of Trustees, and he is president of Pfizer Global Research and Development.

The new project-based approach to freshman chemistry requires students to think scientifically, to formulate hypotheses, to design their own experiments, and to make choices for new directions based upon the data they uncover. Since 95% of all WPI students take at least one chemistry course before graduation (totaling more than 1,200 students in 2003-2004), this change in the chemistry curriculum will have a significant impact on not only chemistry majors, but to nearly every WPI undergraduate. WPI's previous first-year chemistry courses revolved around a traditional series of carefully planned and controlled laboratory experiments. In contrast, each of the four courses in the new full-year sequence consists of a single open-ended project that students tackle in small research teams, which mirror how research laboratories in the real world are organized. Each of the four freshman-year academic terms will feature a focused seven-week theme. In A-term, a course on Molecularity will feature a substance project; B-term's Forces and Bonding course will feature a forces project; C-term's Equilibrium course will feature an amino acid project; and D-term's Dynamics course will feature a kinetics project.

Students in these courses will be challenged to learn to think like scientists -- carefully planning and conducting their work, striving for repeatable results, keeping careful records, being self-critical, and coming to understand that in the real world, things do not always happen the way one predicts. The students will then present their results in formal written reports. "This new approach to freshman chemistry will not only provide students with a solid grounding in the fundamentals of chemistry, but also introduce the process of discovery, which is what scientific research is all about," says Dennis D. Berkey, president of WPI. "These skills, along with the experience of working in teams, will serve students well in their required project work at WPI and, later, in their professional lives. We are grateful to the generous contributors who made this all possible."

The Fuller Chemistry Complex consists of two new laboratories accommodating 24 students each, totaling 3,800 square feet of space. Workspaces were designed to accommodate teams of two to four students, and a central conference area with modern audio-visual equipment provides space for faculty demonstrations, discussion and instruction. Benches are equipped with gas, nitrogen, vacuum, deionized water, electrical and network connections. Ample fume hood space is provided for experimentation and chemical dispensing. In addition, the following equipment items are available for student use: electronic balances, Spectronic 20s, UV-visible spectrometers, Mel-temp apparati, magnetic stirrer/hot plate units, pipettors, pH meters, and multiple sets of small-scale standard glassware and hardware. Sophisticated analytical equipment, such as spectrometers, are located in a new instrumentation room directly adjacent to the lab for ready access by the student teams. Finally, the complex includes a prep room and two vestibule areas for storage of student belongings.

"These are modern, well-equipped spaces well designed for team-based project work, and ideally suited to support this new way of teaching and learning," says James P. Dittami, head of WPI's Chemistry and Biochemistry Department. "They are an exciting and much-needed addition to our facilities. For some undergraduates, these chemistry classes will be their only exposure to science, while for others it will be the start of a long and imaginative career of discovery. In either case, the impact of these new labs and curriculum will be profound."