Enrollment in Chemistry Soars at UB, Bucking a National Decline

Release Date: August 20, 2003 This content is archived.


Related Multimedia

Chemistry at UB is "just booming," says Jim Atwood, department chair. In four years, enrollment in freshmen chemistry has jumped more than 200 percent.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When Jim D. Atwood became the chair of the Department of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo in 1998, he said he wanted to make freshman chemistry "a little less hated."

And with about 30 percent of freshmen flunking out of General Chemistry 101, he had a tough job ahead of him.

Now, five years later, having instituted major changes in the freshman chemistry courses, Atwood and his faculty have succeeded beyond their most ambitious dreams.

"It's just booming," said Atwood, Ph.D., who also is UB professor of chemistry.

Enrollment in Chemistry 101 has jumped more than 200 percent since 1999. This fall, with more than 1,000 students signed up for Chemistry 101 (versus 430 in 1999), the department will be operating near capacity for its lecture halls, and total undergraduate enrollment in chemistry courses also have seen impressive increases.

The number of chemistry majors also is skyrocketing, said Atwood.

"In spring 2002 we had 45 seniors, our biggest graduating class since the department was founded in 1922," he said. During the past 10 years, the number of majors had dropped as low as 20.

"The (UB) department is bucking the national trend of declining chemistry majors..." stated a report on the department prepared last spring by chemistry professors from other universities. The external review was part of a departmental self-study that UB required of all its departments. "The department should be applauded for the effective and committed approach it takes to undergraduate education," it said.

Addressing the 30 percent drop-out rate in General Chemistry was critical not only for the department but for the university, said James W. McIver, Ph.D., UB professor of chemistry and director of undergraduate studies for the department.

"Once students drop out of General Chemistry because they are failing, their course load falls below 12 credits, they are in danger of losing their financial aid and sometimes they end up leaving the university altogether," he said.

The most significant change the department made was the development of a new course, CHE 100, Introduction to Chemistry.

Introduced in 1999, the one-semester course was designed to better prepare students whose high school transcripts showed weak grades in chemistry and/or mathematics to make the transition to CHE 101. During orientation, those students were counseled by their academic advisors to take the Introduction to Chemistry course.

At the same time, the university instituted a new provision allowing students in CHE 101 who had failed the first exam in mid-October to switch to CHE 100 in the middle of the semester.

"That provision is unique to UB," said McIver, the primary developer behind CHE 100. "Students actually can change courses in the middle of the semester without a penalty."

When they complete CHE 100, students then go back to re-enroll in CHE 101, and the results have been excellent.

"It's had a major impact," said Atwood. "In one group we saw that 70 percent of the students who had taken CHE 100 scored a grade of B or better once they got to CHE 101."

The curriculum for Introduction to Chemistry was based on the department's intensive evaluation of freshman exams over the past 10 years.

"We were trying to see where it is that students get tripped up," said McIver. They found that what was giving students the greatest trouble were the so-called word problems, for example:

Calculate the mole fraction of water in a mixture consisting of 9.0 g water, 120 g acetic acid and 115 g of ethyl alcohol.

"The problem is not that the students cannot do the mathematics," said McIver, "but that they don't understand how to organize the problem. What we are doing with this course is introducing them to the ideas and the language of chemistry and focusing their attention on solving lots and lots of these word problems."

In addition to three hours of lecture per week, the students also take two hours of recitations, small groups of about 25 who meet with teaching assistants and who work intensively on word problems and other parts of the chemistry curriculum.

In addition to CHE 100, the department also revamped the curriculum for laboratory sections of CHE 101; developed a new freshman course exclusively for engineering majors, most of whom only need one semester of chemistry, and recruited its best lecturers to teach the freshman chemistry course.

The department, which is part of the UB College of Arts and Sciences, also was cited by the external reviewers as offering a broad range of undergraduate courses, establishing an excellent advising component, and encouraging potential majors to embark on laboratory research with professors as early as their sophomore year.

Media Contact Information

Ellen Goldbaum
News Content Manager
Tel: 716-645-4605