NUChem Videos: The Mutually Beneficial Intersection of Graduate Research and Undergraduate Learning

Jun 5, 2021 | Spring 2021

CAROLINE HARMS

Northwestern ’23

Caroline is a sophomore majoring in Materials Science and Engineering with minors in Chemistry and English Literature. Currently involved in research projects regarding the use of nanomaterials to remediate heavy metals and plastics, she is highly interested in utilising the connections between different disciplines to better understand and address environmental and biological challenges. In her free time, Caroline writes poetry, goes on long walks, and seeks out the best restaurants in Chicago.

Among undergraduate students, the general chemistry sequence and its associated material is largely considered challenging. Concepts that are typically covered in high school level courses, which give primacy to the classification of chemical species and their reactions, are expanded upon in depth with a greater consideration of the molecular mechanics of chemical structure and its consequences. Heavily theory-based and often difficult to conceptualize initially, these new topics can appear to lack connection to practical applications, generating new barriers to engaging with and understanding the material that professors and teaching assistants alike seek to mitigate. A particularly effective strategy, utilized in my own general chemistry courses, capitalized on the broad variety of related research being conducted at the graduate level, taking the form of short yet detailed videos in which a particular concept currently being taught in lecture was explained by and through the lens of a graduate student’s research. Such was my and many other students’ first introduction to the NUChem Videos organization. 

Project Origins and Goals 

Established in 2019 by Youn Jue (Eunice) Bae, a chemistry graduate student in the Wasielewski Research Group and recipient of Northwestern’s Graduate Teaching Fellowship (GFT), NUChem Videos is a collaboration between the Northwestern Chemistry Department and Northwestern’s Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching. The project aims to provide an applied perspective of the material introduced in general chemistry courses through a series of videos on graduate research. The videos, produced by graduate students and consumed by undergraduates, are intended to aid both involved groups with respect to different aspects of their chemistry proficiency. 

“From the undergraduate side of things, we want to give additional channels for students to contextualize course concepts, specifically in the context of the research that’s occurring right on their campus,” said Jon Schultz, a fourth-year chemistry graduate student in the Wasielewski and Ratner Groups whose individual research involves the application of physical chemistry to solar energy. 

Like his predecessor Bae, Schultz is a Graduate Teaching Fellow (GTF) who has taken the lead on the project starting this academic year. 

“We want to help bridge concepts or topics that might not have been super clear, and really facilitate that kind of transfer of knowledge to thinking about things that are happening right now in the real world,” said Schultz. 

From the graduate perspective, the intention is less to inform but rather to allow for the development of effective pedagogy by presenting the topics of their research to audiences of varying educational background and familiarity with the concepts in question. Schultz elaborates that “ultimately, it’s an exercise for them to practice their communication skills and really think about how you can design what you say to make sure that no one gets left behind, especially when we’re dealing with large student bodies where we have a lot of diversity and lots of different learning mechanisms and backgrounds.”

Schultz’s personal experiences, both as a former chemistry and chemical engineering major and currently as a PhD candidate, have informed his belief in the necessity of this project for students of ranging academic standing and, more broadly, the importance of clarity and connection in promoting engagement with research and its foundations. 

“Early on in my grad career basically up until the qualifying exam, I think it was more of an innate mindset that I had, and I think that a lot of people have, that using more fancy language makes you sound smarter,” Schultz explains. 

Although employing technical terms is often emphasized with great effect in academic and research environments, it can be less conducive when applied to broader audiences, such as the undergraduate community, who may not be familiar with the concepts and often find such language as a barrier to understanding. 

“Using less jargon and using more communication designed around accessibility is much harder, and also allows you to learn those concepts on a much deeper level. This is the case for me, so this is what I’m trying to help other people just have opportunities to work with.” With this focus in mind, NUChem Videos allows graduate students to practice conveying their research effectively, while providing undergraduates with new and perhaps more comprehensible insights into the fundamentals of chemistry that provide the foundation for this research. 

Undergraduate and Graduate Collaboration 

As suggested by the project’s name, the resources NUChem Videos provides are in the form of short YouTube videos in which graduate students communicate the relevance of a specific topic with respect to their own work, utilizing both lecture-style delivery and illustrative graphics. Intended to follow the coursework covered in the various general chemistry sequences offered, graduate students are usually sought after based on the pertinence of their research to the curriculum covered in the general chemistry sequences. Schultz starts the process of creating a video by “brainstorming with the professor about what videos and kind of timeline could be nice, and then after we have the concepts, I reach out to the chemistry department at large.” 

As the target audience, undergraduates are included in the formulation and editing processes to ensure the suitability of the materials and provide input regarding the intelligibility of each video’s main takeaways. 

“I’ve been working with four undergraduates that provide consultation and basically attend these meetings that we have with grad students to talk about their scripts, and what words and what phrases might be abstract for this level.” 

One of these undergraduate students, Hasan Munshi, is a sophomore studying chemistry who became involved with the organization after viewing some of the first videos produced in class. Elaborating on his role and the editing process, Munshi explained: “We have a Zoom meeting where we edit the videos with the grad student who made the video … and I mostly give feedback on ways in which you make it engaging, or we add some humor to some of the videos. That’s how we get feedback for communication skills.” This interesting dynamic of reciprocative assessment and guidance between graduate and undergraduate students more intimately echoes the large-scale effects the two communities are able to have on each other in terms of aiding complementary growth and learning. 

 By involving collaboration across all academic levels in the chemistry department, NUChem Videos facilitates connections that benefit the different groups involved. For graduate students, the undergraduate perspective has helped them delineate material more successfully to a variety of audiences by mitigating the use of unnecessary jargon and returning to the roots of the concept in question. 

“The message that I want to convey to the grad students is that we highlight our audiences, students who have probably graduated high school in the not-to-distant past, and we really have to sit down and imagine ourselves at that stage but then also account for [the fact] that everyone’s experience is certainly not the same as ours,” said Schultz. “So there are a lot of moments where I just missed something that is jargon, or I missed something that is too confusing or too abstract, but sometimes there’s just a natural tendency to look past these things, which we’re all trying to get better at. But the undergraduate volunteers that we have have pointed out a lot of these things, so this has been really helpful, and I think it means more to the grad students when it comes from the audience that they’re trying to design their content for.” 

Undergraduates benefit from the connections created across the various academic levels within the chemistry department, inspiring a deeper appreciation for more advanced concepts as well as greater comfort when engaging with older students or professors. 

“I do think it’s helped me in terms of interacting with other faculty members, as well as other grad students,” Munshi said. 

When working with graduate students and professors as part of the organization’s undergraduate team, Munshi found his treatment as “an equal, in a sense” to be a break from the typical hierarchy between undergraduates and more senior teaching figures. This collaboration will most likely facilitate easier interactions with more experienced mentors when pursuing research of his own. Munshi encourages students not to feel “too worried about sending a cold email or emailing your professor about [their] research.” Schultz echoes this sentiment, stating that “it’s never too early to start those conversations” and motivates students to “reach out to higher-ups on campus, because they’re a great resource to you and chances are they’ve gone through a lot of similar things that you are going through right now [as you try] to find what interests you.” By exposing students to how research interacts with their course’s subject material, NUChem Videos are inspiring this comfortable dynamic between undergraduate students and more experienced researchers in the effort to facilitate undergraduate engagement in research. 

Current Pathway and Future Directions 

Despite the organization being implemented less than two years ago, 11 videos are in circulation, covering a wide variety of content from valence shell electron repulsion (VSEPR) theory to electrochemistry. Professors have used this content as a teaching resource in five general chemistry courses, and the videos are available to the general public on YouTube.

Fortunately, the transition to online learning has little impact on the video production process as a whole. “With this project, it was always virtual, it was always online because it’s for videos,” said Munshi. “On my end, for editing you don’t really meet in person, it was mostly through email. But now with Zoom, we were able to work on it together synchronously.”

 With the difficulties of a remote learning environment to navigate, “professors have actually been more receptive to virtual resources this year,” Schultz remarks. Based on their online format, the videos are easily accessible to students studying from home and provide greater undergraduate engagement with research, something which has unfortunately suffered due to the lack of in-person activities. 

“I’m hoping that the theory videos in particular help motivate students to contemplate research in this virtual environment, because it is possible,” said Schultz. 

In addition to lecture-style videos, various virtual demonstration videos detailing experimental procedures or phenomena have also been added to the roster in the hopes of supplementing suspended in-person laboratories and demos.

“Professor Peter Stair was the inspiration for this idea… especially because the demos could not be brought in in person, he was really psyched about having some videos that weren’t just random YouTube videos… we could control what we’re covering and make sure that we’re covering all the bases,” said Schultz. 

These kinds of experiment-based videos will most likely be expanded upon in the future as “another channel for what types of videos we have people work on.” The future trajectory of NUChem Videos involves not only the more complete coverage of all Northwestern general chemistry courses but potential resources devoted to more advanced classes, such as the organic chemistry sequence, or collaborations with other departments to show “that chemistry can be important to other disciplines.” 

“I would love to expand this to outside of the Chemistry Department and have people from other departments work with me and provide that perspective,” Schultz added. “This would be a way for a bridge between departments to be formed.” 

This expansion also applies to the videos’ presenters, with the possibility of inviting undergraduate researchers to share connections between their work and course material positively discussed by the NUChem team. 

“There are some fun ideas to pursue in that regard, where then the grad students can also communicate with the undergrads when they’re developing their videos as well,” said Schultz, providing a further example of the mutual exchange of feedback between graduate and undergraduate students.  

“I guess it’s also a proof of concept, in the sense that this idea is to get undergraduates doing research. If you have an undergrad doing research, it gives merit to the whole project,” said Munshi. 

With this direction in consideration, the future of NUChem Videos and the reach of its impact is particularly promising for graduate and undergraduate students alike.