The Mastodon is the CURE: Library Partnership in a Chemistry Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience

Our author today is SLL blog facilitator Anne Marie Gruber, Liaison & Textbook Equity Librarian, University of Northern Iowa

tusk exhibit    tusk

Chemistry and community-engaged learning may seem like strange bedfellows. So might a mastodon tusk and a library! But at University of Northern Iowa, upper-level chemistry and biochemistry majors in the Instrumental Analysis course conduct research on behalf of campus and community partners, and the results have been impactful and inspiring! 

Students in the course are learning to use tools and strategies to conduct chemical analysis. Their objects of study have ranged from coffee from a local roaster to a 200,000+ year-old mastodon tusk, Peruvian mummy textiles, and World War I brass artifacts held by the UNI Museum (located in Rod Library and within the library's organizational structure). Over the past five fall semesters, students have used chemical analysis to answer questions such as: Is there asbestos in the mastodon tusk? Is there blood on the mummy cloths? How can museum staff best preserve the brass artifacts? How much caffeine is there at various stages of the coffee roasting process?

But before diving into lab work, students start with a literature review, then required a proposal outline, and a 6-page proposal emulating a grant proposal. Student conduct their research then prepare a poster and oral presentation at a culminating event that is open to the public. Information literacy and science communication skills are emphasized throughout the course, in addition to the high-level chemistry skills required.

As the liaison librarian for Chemistry & Biochemistry (among other areas), I have partnered with the instructor, Dr. Joshua Sebree, to support student learning in the course in several ways. I meet with students early in the semester to get them started on literature reviews and I serve as a judge at the culminating poster session. In addition, this course is the only course on campus that requires research consultations with me; this is sustainable in a small course (typically 6-10 students) and my outline "sign off" and feedback ensures that projects get started on the right track. I have found that my stance as a non-expert (I don't have a chemistry background!) is actually an asset, as I can help students prepare to interpret high-level chemistry knowledge and share it with a public, non-expert audience.

There isn’t an explicit reflective component, so student projects doesn't fit the definition of service-learning. However, I connect with each student at the poster session and ask what surprised them about their research process as well as what it was like to have a “client”. Invariably they report that providing their findings to the community partner intimidated them at first but ultimately elevated the level of their work; put another way, the stakes were higher when the audience went beyond the instructor!

This is the type of exciting project that could be replicated elsewhere and is flexible enough to incorporate different levels of librarian involvement. It connects the library with a department that has traditionally been less involved with the library's instruction program. It's been gratifying to me to be involved in creative ways that go beyond the "one-shot" and for the library & museum to serve as a client. In fact, students' mastodon tusk research resulted in a permanent digital display in our museum so future visitors can learn from what our chemistry students discovered. 

The collaboration also fits the library's inclusive mission as we support a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) model, which broadens access to hands-on research experiences beyond summer fellowships or research programs. The library participating in a community-engaged learning approach in chemistry means we are supporting new discoveries and research experiences for all our students, and having LOTS of fun at the same time!


Thank you to UNI Museum staff Nathan Arndt and Jess Cruz who make the Museum projects possible, as well as to our off-campus partners such as Jed Vander Zanden from Sidecar Coffee.


CategoriesCommunity Partnerships, Embedded Librarianship, Information Literacy, Library/Librarian Roles