Baas: First-year classes like General Chemistry must provide better materials, resources

Jared Baas, Op-Ed Contributor

It all started during Wildcat Welcome. I received an email from Northwestern’s chemistry department saying new General Chemistry students were required to go to the lab resource room and purchase a lab coat and goggles. This struck me as odd.

With a $70,000-plus cost of attendance, NU certainly isn’t a cheap place to go to school. While different campus programs are in place for assisting low-income students with these expenses, the bigger issue is that these costs exist in the first place. These programs are certainly important and valuable, and I’m not trying to take away from that. But students who need help aren’t always from low-income backgrounds. One might think such a costly school would be well equipped to provide all of its students — regardless of their background — with basic class materials. Some students spend hundreds of dollars every quarter on textbooks that may later sit in the corner of their room if they’re rarely referenced in classes. These resources could be provided by the University in much more cost effective ways, like giving students online access to learning materials. They then could be used by multiple students for months in the classroom.

In the case of Gen Chem, each student should be provided with a lab coat and safety glasses considering these are basic, required materials that can be used throughout all four years of college. If a student doesn’t need them for that long, they could just be returned to the department. Anything returned in a usable condition could then be utilized by the next group of incoming students and help reduce the impact of wasted materials.

Perhaps my expectations of the Gen Chem lab were too great; my high school was admittedly located in a wealthy area of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Since it was only high school, however, we mostly used glassware and some standard chemicals. Goggles were available for student use, and we were given plastic aprons for protection, because we mainly conducted basic experiments. Because of these experiences, I assumed NU’s laboratories for students in Gen Chem would be much more advanced.

When I entered the lab at NU for the first time, all the memories of my first two years of high school chemistry came flooding back. The black counters, the fume hoods, deionized water bottles — all of it was familiar. What surprised me, however, was the quality of materials NU provided us.

Expecting cabinets full of neat rows of glassware and other lab equipment, I found myself in front of the same plastic bin filled with a hodgepodge of stained and chipped materials. Just as in high school, we were given a list of items that should be in our work bin, and if they weren’t there, we were expected to go on a mission to hunt down replacements. While our lab coats and glasses created the image of sophisticated scientists, here I was again counting out test tubes and replacing broken materials. For a research-focused university with an endowment of over $10 billion, these were subpar offerings. We all came ready to test our ideas, learn new techniques and collaborate with our peers as NU advertises in its brochures. Instead, I found myself standing in line to use a decades-old scale that fluctuated readings if someone so much as blinked an eye.

This was discouraging for a student — regardless of their prior background or expectations — who hopes to one day become a successful scientist. I came to NU expecting my tuition to translate into well-built research labs and quality school-provided materials, and yet all I ended up with is a poorly made sequel to high school chemistry. I don’t think NU is doing the best it can to inspire students to enter STEM fields, and instead leaves some feeling that Gen Chem is just another mandatory course on the way to grad school. If the University wants to become a stronger science and research school for its students, it has to start from the bottom up, and change the way first-year students experience chemistry.

Jared Baas is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.