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Chemistry Department Overhauls Curriculum, Facilities

The Chemistry Department is in the midst of radical changes – including curriculum, facilities, equipment and technology.
Dr. Wim Steelant, department chair, spearheaded much of the changes, with support from the rest of the department and the administration.

Steelant and Dr. Jeff Altig said they hope the wholesale changes in the department will encourage more students to consider chemistry as a major. Steelant said the intention is to make required chemistry courses enjoyable, modern, engaging and challenging.

“Every student at New Mexico Tech comes through our labs,” he said. “We want them to learn something about chemistry and have a positive experience.”

University president Dr. Daniel H. Lopez and the Board of Regents helped the department with renovations to Jones Hall, one of campus’s oldest buildings. The three-year building project gave the department the opportunity to renovate the teaching labs.

The General Chemistry Lab – where every freshman takes required courses – was completely gutted and refurnished. The lab features new benches with new drawers, new glassware and additional fume hoods. The lab formerly could accommodate two classes of 18 students at once, but now can handle two classes of 24. Also, the Gen Chem section formerly was limited to 288 students. With the additional drawers, the lab can accommodate 432 students.

Senior chemical engineering major James Fallt said that when he first came to Tech the chemistry labs were not as good as his high school facilities. Now, however, Tech’s labs as good as any other college, he said.

The department has seen decreasing undergraduate enrollment over the past decade. In the fall of 2000, the department had 45 undergraduates. In the fall of 2008, Chemistry had 30 undergraduates. Steelant said the department needed some drastic changes to reverse that trend – and this is the start. 

“It doesn’t look dank and archaic,” senior Britt Catron said. “The lab gives us something to show incoming students to make them want to come to Tech. And it keeps getting better every year.”

The Organic Chemistry Lab has also been completely renovated, with new equipment, benches and fume hoods. Fallt said he especially appreciates the new equipment in the O Chem Lab, which makes work much more convenient. The department is systematically upgrading each lab course within the curriculum.

The department is also adding a new computer modeling lab, where students will be able to work with computational software similar to what they’ll encounter when they start their careers. The university recently funded the purchase of a new microscopic magnetic resonance instrument, allowing the department to devote one NMR to research and the other to teaching. The department has invested more than $25,000 in laboratory glassware.

“That’s really important and helpful,” senior chemistry student Fred Hansen said. “Before, if you ran out of glassware, a lab could take hours. Now we have enough glassware to get our work done.”

Altig led the effort to completely rewrite the Gen Chem lab manual, bringing the class into the 21st century.

“That lab manual hadn’t changed since the ’40s or ’50s,” he said. “We’re not done tweaking it, but we’ve completed the major overhaul. We hope to add computer data acquisition systems in the near future.”

Altig and Dr. Michael Pullin have also rewritten the lab manual for Quantitative Analysis and will next tackle the Physical Chemistry manual. Many upper level chemistry classes are required courses for other departments, or what Altig calls “service courses.” As he starts modernizing the upper level courses, Altig said he expects to interact with other academic departments to make sure the new curriculum suits their needs as well.

“This process is never-ending,” he said. “But we’ve done the major overhauls, so the rest should seem easy in comparison.”

-- NMT --

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

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