Education & Outreach

To fast-track the democratization of chemical careers to everyone, CAFF’s Education and Outreach Plan is integrated with our Center Theme. CAFF will engage a constituency of chemists that have fallen between the cracks of public/K-12 outreach on the one hand, and undergraduate/graduate training on the other: the rapidly growing student body in Community Colleges. We will tap a network of Colleges located in diverse demographic regions near each co-PI’s respective institution. The highly diverse scientists trained at these institutions, ranging from coastal minorities to underserved rural communities in the central US, are an increasingly critical audience for continued graduate training and the health and future of American science. We will inaugurate teamplay with Community College faculty during Phase I and prototype affordable and modular instrumentation appropriate for Community College and PUI labs. These efforts will play a critical role in expanding to Phase II and help us realize our vision of connecting fundamental chemistry – the flaws – with desirable outcomes – the features.

CAFF will pursue team-level, hypothesis-driven questions that are larger and broader than any single-investigator effort. With Rossky and Levine providing theory guidance, Dionne, Gruebele, Landes, Link, Roberts, and Zanni will design spectroscopic imaging methods and translate them into modules, data analysis tools, and instruments that are accessible to the broader community.

The NSF CAFF higher education plan will transform perceived flaws into future features by fast-tracking the democratization of undergraduate education and focusing on a constituency of chemists that have fallen between the cracks of public/K-12 outreach on the one hand, and undergraduate/graduate training on the other: the rapidly growing student body in Community Colleges. Roberts will lead our higher education outreach plan, and we will tap our network of Colleges located in diverse demographic regions near each co-PI’s respective institution, and all NSF CAFF PIs and students will participate. Expansion to additional locations, and creating synergies with existing NSF REUs and more Community College partners, will be addressed in our Strategic Plan for Phase II. Importantly, our Phase I partner community colleges represent both underrepresented urban and underserved rural communities, allowing us to reach a diverse set of students who can form the future of American science. 



One important new outcome from summer partnerships between NSF CAFF members and community college students and faculty, is the development of new, affordable laboratory modules that are suitable for incorporation into community college general chemistry curriculum. We requested funds in our budget ($5,000) to purchase 20 student spectrometer kits from Trimontana (Fig. 18) and 20 Raspberry Pis (see Budget Justification and letter of collaboration from Trimontana), plus additional optics and electronics for expansion. The spectrometer kits, each priced at $200, are designed such that students have a multi-week lab experience in which they build a simple spectrometer, perform spectroscopy experiments, collect and digitize data using the Raspberry Pi, and analyze and present their data using Python scripts that are also included. Summer projects among NSF CAFF hosts and community college partners will enable us to work together to create lesson plans and syllabi so that general chemistry students can have a real experimental physical chemistry lab experience at an affordable cost, adapted to their needs. After successful demonstration of this concept, our Strategic Plan for Phase II will include industry partnerships that will create new and affordable modular instrumentation for upper-level physical chemistry labs and meaningful research partnerships with colleagues at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), starting with Daniels, again with a goal of democratizing access to cutting-edge research. Innovation outcomes, as described above and next, include new companies and products that specialize in affordable spectroscopy instrumentation marketed to community colleges and PUIs.   Partnership with community colleges in Phase I, and PUIs in Phase II, addresses a flaw in experimental physical chemistry research and education: the costs required for cutting-edge instrumentation at top-tier research institutions presents a roadblock for others. Many undergraduates, even if they are chemistry majors, are never exposed to exciting basic research in physical chemistry before they specialize in other fields. There is an urgent need for professionals trained in data collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation. Because both Phase I and Phase II goals include enabling our faculty and student participants to start companies that market affordable spectroscopy instrumentation and modules, Zanni will play an important role in our translation and commercialization training. His successful company, PhaseTech, manufactures and sells cutting-edge ultrafast spectroscopy instrumentation. His expertise, along with our university translation offices, even provides a broader platform to help partner with students who desire a career in entrepreneurship, industry, or patent law. 

Professional Development

Our plan will feature something that often has been considered a flaw in graduate training: the majority of our BS and PhD students do not go on to academic research positions, but instead pursue broader industry careers. We will emphasize and enhance our students’ preparedness for forming and joining startups and improving industry’s access to the latest data-driven experimental capabilities. We will promote professional development for our undergraduate and graduate students, including co-mentoring, collaborative training, and career development though a quarterly speaker series on careers within and beyond academia. Leadership mentoring will be coordinated through Rice’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders, which offers courses and workshops on leadership success. Elevator pitch and seminar coaching events will be provided by industry-focused professional development coaches.  In order to prototype our industry-driven approach, students from all NSF CAFF teams participated in a 2-day online career-development workshop hosted by McKee-Burke and Associates, a Houston-based career management organization for the chemical, technology, and manufacturing industry. The virtual workshop (Fig. 19) served as a team-building exercise for students from our different groups, but also provided training in skills such as interviewing, negotiating, and personal branding. Importantly, there was emphasis that although this workshop offered an industry perspective, such skills are fully transferable to academic job searches where these skills are crucial to success, but often overlooked in academic training.

Informal Science Communication

We are inspired by innovations forced by COVID travel restrictions as well as the highly successful NSF Sustainable Nano blog.311 We will create a Flaws to Features Webinar series, moderated each month by NSF CAFF students, in which they host civic scientist guests and discuss a unique and important chemistry flaw, which was or could be exploited to be a feature. We envision that this webinar series will be part history (the steel weapons example, discussed above), part current science, and part professional development (turning resume gaps into advantages, for example). Rice University holds a Zoom webinar license, which will be used in Phase I, and allow us to reach an international audience. We will also be able to simulcast and archive on an NSF-CAFF Youtube channel, where we furthermore will demonstrate optics concepts. In addition, the webinar series will host special events such as Zoom/Youtube flash Python hackathons that emphasize CAFF’s central research theme.