A New Formula for Chemistry
The revamp of Fraser Hall and the chemistry department will bring tools that set up students across the University for success.
Chemistry Professor David Blank would like to show you two side-by-side images. In one, students stand behind long work tables at individual stations diligently conducting science experiments. In another, students appear to stand behind those same tables, with little indication that anything has changed, except that one photo is black-and-white and dated 1932, and the other is current. Aside from the fashion and genders (the older image features almost exclusively young men wearing button-up shirts and ties), it doesn’t appear that this chemistry lab has changed in close to a century.
That’s because it hasn’t.
Blank, who became associate dean for undergraduate programs in the College of Science and Engineering in July 2023 after heading the Department of Chemistry since 2017, helped lead efforts at the Minnesota Legislature to bring the U of M’s undergraduate chemistry labs into the 21st century. In May, those efforts paid off. The state’s 2023 bonding bill provided nearly $93 million toward the $140 million transformation of Fraser Hall on the East Bank into a 117,000-square-foot modern chemistry teaching laboratory. With additional philanthropic support and college resources, the state-backed project will replace outdated chemistry labs in Smith and Kolthoff Halls.
Chemistry across campus
What might surprise you is that the soon-to-be renovated Fraser Hall and its chemistry labs will serve not just chemistry students, but first- and second-year students from nearly every U of M Twin Cities college, from the College of Liberal Arts to the College of Biological Sciences.
Chemistry has been an integral part of the University of Minnesota since the department was established in 1869. It's often called the “central science” because of its role in connecting the physical sciences. Blank agrees that nearly everything that has a scientific foundation to it includes chemistry.
“Everybody who is going to go into anything health-science related, agriculture-science related … chemistry is the foundation of all of these things,” says Blank.
And those fields are growing fast.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development projects significant job growth in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The new Fraser Hall will help meet that demand, says Blank.
‘Life has shifted’
In 2022-23, more than 5,000 students from over 120 different undergraduate majors enrolled in eight different chemistry laboratory courses. More than 75 percent of those students were from colleges other than the College of Science & Engineering, which is home to the Department of Chemistry. Once completed, about a third of all students who graduate from the Twin Cities will have had a course in a Fraser Hall laboratory, says Blank.
But perhaps more important, the new Fraser Hall and its labs will formalize a shift in teaching and learning outcomes that has been under way for some time.
“The way we’ve done this for 100 years is we’ve got these long benches in this giant room. We essentially hand students a cookbook that says, ‘open the drawer, take out the beaker … don’t think, just do the following things in order,’” says Blank. "You get out in the real world, no one is going to hand you a cookbook.”
“Life has shifted,” agrees Michelle Driessen, professor and director of general chemistry and a leading advocate for the new Fraser Hall. She came to that realization more than a decade ago when she overheard students discussing a lab session.
“I heard a student say, ‘Did you understand what we were supposed to do today? What number did you get?’” says Driessen. “And the response was, ‘No, I didn’t really understand it. I got a number though.’
“It became more and more clear that once you start telling somebody what to do, step by step, you shut your brain off,” says Driessen.
That realization led Driessen to implement collaborative learning in her courses years ago.
“Before I made this change, students would go into the lab and do their own experiment, they’d have this 40-page document that says, ‘follow these 50 steps,’” says Driessen. “Now I give them about a paragraph, and they have to work together and figure out why they’re doing something. It’s sticking better,” she says.
The problem was that while the instruction methods were sound, the spaces for performing the work didn’t match the intended experience. Students would do group work in hallways outside the labs. And inside the labs, they complained of being distracted by the noise of simultaneously sharing the same large undivided space with other courses.
The new labs will have space that is intentionally designed for small group collaborations with sightlines and separations that provide a much-needed safety overhaul, says Driessen.
Responding to the marketplace
Blank says that the need for new labs was driven not only by research on teaching methods, but by the marketplace. Minnesota companies like 3M, Cargill, Boston Scientific, General Mills, and many others want students with skills like critical thinking, writing and communication, and collaborative problem solving— and they let faculty know about it.
“Employers basically said, ‘We hire from places who take this approach,’” says Blank. “Which is a little bit of a threat. But it’s an effective threat. Because if you care about your students, you want to make sure they’re the ones who are being hired.’”
Mike Kesti, senior vice president of corporate research and development at 3M, visited the Capitol with Blank and helped advocate for the new building.
“3M strategically targets students from the best universities across the globe who are well prepared to work in team- and project-based environments to help solve complex problems,” says Kesti. “[We supported] this because it will enable students, both STEM and non-STEM, to learn and thrive in a modern, collaborative learning space and better prepare them to make an impact in industry—hopefully at 3M.”
“It really is a service to undergraduate education. I’m not sure there’s a building that will see more use from students across the entire institution,” he says.
“This will be at the front end of how you start to think about learning independently, baked into one of [a student's] first experiences. So the hope is you carry that forward, and that you no longer expect to be given a cookbook.”