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How undergrads can shape their own education

Written by: Akiri Nishii
Published on: Sep 30, 2021

writing with a large pencil
Image credit: Robert Neubecker

I entered the main conference room in our chemistry building, feeling nervous. I was the last to arrive, and I hastily took my place at a boat-shaped table alongside four other students, all undergrads like me. A group of professors sat across from us, chatting amicably among themselves. Scheduling this meeting—and getting more than one faculty member in a room at once—had taken me almost a month. Determined to make the most of their time, I collected my thoughts and skimmed the meeting agenda for a fifth time. Our group's goal, simple but unprecedented, was spelled out in bold at the top of my notes: "We want to build a university course from the bottom up."

We didn't know what would come out of the meeting. We wanted to create a course because we believed the introductory chemistry curriculum did not sufficiently prepare students for work in a research lab. But we worried the professors would see us as naïve children. What did we know about designing a course? Who were we to insist that the curriculum was inadequate?

I was in year two of my bachelor's degree, but my experience on campus went back further than that. I grew up near the university and had volunteered as a research assistant during my last 2 years of high school. A postdoc in a diabetes lab had taken me under his wing, teaching me how to extract DNA, perform Western blots, culture cells, and handle mice. I was grateful for the time he spent with me, sometimes doubting whether my presence amounted to more than a burden.

When I graduated, I decided to attend the university to study biology and chemical engineering. Fortunately, my earlier lab experience helped me secure another research assistant position, this time in a cancer lab. I went into the experience feeling more confident with my lab skills, which allowed me to focus on understanding the science.

At the same time, I observed that many of my peers were at a disadvantage because of their lack of research experience. Even after joining a lab, many of them had to spend months improving their lab techniques before they were able to contribute intellectually to research projects. That led me to brainstorm possible ways to help them.

I recruited other students who were interested in chemistry research, and we set out to convince faculty members that a new course was needed to address this issue. Our university's introductory chemistry course had a lab component, but it only covered a few lab techniques and wasn't tailored to students who wanted to get involved in chemistry research.

The new course that we had in mind would expose younger students to a diverse range of research skills, such as reading the literature and applying standard chemistry techniques. We didn't plan to ask faculty members to teach it; instead, we thought the course could be taught by older, more experienced undergraduate students.

When we met with the professors to discuss our proposed course, we assumed they would be skeptical. We were surprised to find they were instead open to our idea. One senior professor had to leave early, but before he did, he rearticulated our position and gave me a knowing wink. A younger professor then suggested that he could provide faculty oversight, and we started to discuss how we might secure funding and departmental resources.

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"Students should be advocates for their own education."

Our course was added to the official course catalog for the following semester, and it was extremely popular, quickly exceeding the maximum enrollment capacity of 80 students. We designed the course ourselves, and two undergraduate students—both of whom were paid by the university—served as instructors. At the end of the semester, students and professors alike were happy with the outcome, so the course has continued to be offered in the years since.

It is all too common for undergraduate students to have little say in shaping their education. I'm grateful that the professors in our department were willing to listen and help us take the curriculum in a new direction, but I suspect this level of openness is rare. Students should be advocates for their own education—and universities should welcome this ambition with open arms.

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Akira Nishii is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.