Chemistry class reinvented

UMD grad student reimagines career, science teaching methods

When Soren Sjerven came to UMD seven years ago, he planned to become a doctor. But his graduate studies led him to a completely different career: teaching. 

After being waitlisted for medical school, Sjerven started on a master’s degree in chemistry in 2021, building on his undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and chemistry

Once in graduate school, he ended up with more time to think about his career. He began to consider something that had stuck with him since his freshman year: a chemistry class with Assistant Professor Jacob Wainman that used a “flipped classroom” technique. 

With this method, students interact with new material outside of the classroom, and lecture time is then used for active learning instead of passive listening. “I basically ‘taught myself’ and he would answer any questions,” Sjerven explains. “I was intrigued.”

Inquiry-based learning

Sjerven committed to changing paths during grad school and joined Wainman’s research group. His first project was finding ways to scale up the curriculum in a general chemistry lab based on the needs of everyone in the class, including non-majors.

“My research revised the curriculum to be inquiry-based instead of a cookbook style,” he says. “Each of the experiments was revised to incorporate inquiry and open-ended learning into the labs.” 

Ultimately, the changes worked, and they found that students performed better with the new curriculum.

Sjerven's next project was helping to develop a skills assessment for a quantitative chemistry lab, inspired by the proficiency tests done in language courses. It was designed to assess student’s chemistry techniques in a practical way, and has since been implemented as the final exam.

Education is always evolving; Sjerven’s work demonstrates this well. Even Wainman’s style of teaching has changed: “His method of instruction now uses lecture and group work within a two-hour class time to suit the needs of the students,” Sjerven comments.

Looking to the future 

Armed with research, degrees, a community college teaching certificate, a license to teach chemistry in grades 9-12, the connections he’s made at UMD, and the practical techniques he’s seen work so far, Sjerven is well prepared to make a difference in the world of chemistry education. 

He does not see an end to his research, even when he begins teaching. The goal of his curriculum will be to “keep reinventing how chemistry is taught in both lab and lecture,” and to reach the most students he can. 

This story was written by UMD student Jax Wilder, who is majoring in psychology. Jax assists Lissa Maki with communications for the College of Education and Human Service Professions.