Five questions for Renee Henry

Chemistry professor taps into technology to reach today’s students

Renee Henry
Renee Henry

After switching her major to biology while an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, Renee Henry enrolled in the required chemistry classes and found her passion. She returned to the UCCS campus in 2008 and is now inspiring students to appreciate the intricacies of chemistry as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Along with improving teaching methods, Henry’s research entails using her knowledge to develop ways to clean up toxic metals in the environment.

1. How are you changing teaching styles to help students?

Students have grown up with the internet, and because of that, I’ve changed my teaching style. Originally, in classrooms, you lectured and your students wrote stuff down then went away to figure it out on their own, hopefully before taking tests. Students use the internet and technology now, so I moved to using the internet and technology in a way the students can learn in class (interactive learning). I have students use the internet in class, looking up definitions or videos so they have a bigger role in creating their own lecture notes. This way, they find information in a way that is familiar and in a verbiage that means more to them.

Also in class, we spend a lot of time working on problems. That gives me more time to work with 100 or more students in groups or as individuals. I wouldn’t be able to do that otherwise. The students use the iClickers system, which allows them to vote on multiple-choice answers that were provided with the problem. I get feedback from their choices and that helps me figure out if students are getting the concept and I can move on, or if I need to spend more time clarifying the topic. It’s almost hard for me to teach now without instant feedback because I’ve gotten really used to that.

All of this has increased retention quite a bit. In my four-year study, the retention rate increased 30.9 percent. In the study, I compared two years of classes where I used the internet and two years where I didn’t. During the two years using the internet in class, students completed several surveys. The students seemed to like using the internet more than textbooks.

The paper detailing the study was published in the Journal of Chemical Education and has been well-received in the research community. I have been invited to be a speaker at the American Chemical Conference this spring in the interactive symposium.

2. Other research you are engaged in centers around enzymes and proteins that can be used to remove metal toxins from the environment. How did you choose this focus and what has been the outcome of your research?

My research is in the development phase. The synthesis of synthesizing compounds for this work sort of exploded. It took us a couple of years to get one made, but once we figured that out, it was easier to synthesize new compounds. I have 39 molecules to test right now, which is a lot. The research groups have worked with one compound and we’ve been able to get that compound to do a complete cycle. What this entails is the preparation of the compound to bind metals (de-protonation), followed by the introduction of a metal ion, in this case silver, to the reaction solution. The compound-metal complex precipitates out of the solution, which effectively removes the metal ion from the sample solution. Following this, our group can separate the compound-metal complex so the compound can be used again in another cycle and the metal ion can be recycled. I am getting the compound back at 80 percent recovery. What is nice about it is that the cycle purifies that compound and the data shows we’re getting a 100 percent recovery of the metal.

The next phase would be the removal of mixtures of metals from solutions because I want these compounds to be able to remove a wide variety of metals. The intent is to use these at environmental Superfund sites, from mining locations to areas polluted by sludge waste, to remove toxic metal ions. Environmental problems need to be solved to provide a cleaner and safer place to live.

The original idea of this came from a compound that plants secrete into the soil through the root systems to bind iron ions, which are needed for growth. The plants are then able to re-uptake the compound with the iron ion bound to it through the root systems. I thought if they could pick out iron, we could pick out other metals using similar types of compounds.

3. You also teach a forensic chemistry class. How did this come about?

I got into teaching forensic chemistry when I did a teaching postdoc at Colorado State University-Pueblo. They offered the class as part of an emphasis in forensic chemistry. The more I learned about it, the more interesting I found it. When I came to UCCS, I developed a couple of classes, including the forensics class. This one is a nice course because students can fill their science courses with a topic that is familiar to them and interests them. The first thing students learn is that television shows are not reality.

A few years ago, the dean of Letters, Arts and Sciences wanted to offer more online courses. UCCS has an online teaching certificate program that is about a 10-week course. During this program, I learned effective methods to develop and teach an online forensic chemistry course. After teaching the online course the first time, the course was Quality Matters certified, which indicates the course is a robust online course. This was an achievement for me because I completed the certification program, offered the online forensic course and received the Quality Matters certification all within a year.

This online forensic chemistry course has an accompanying laboratory section offered within our department. Hand-On-Labs Science Delivered provides the students with the materials necessary to complete the laboratory experiments at home. These kits include fun things like fingerprint powder, microscope slides with fiber and hair samples and many other items.

A lot of criminal justice students take the course, which begins by covering a little background on scientists who discovered blood-typing or conducted research to prove that fingerprints are unique to each person. After that, we talk about how to approach a crime scene and how to collect and protect evidence. We talk about everything from fingerprints to blood spatter, how to look for evidence of arson at a crime scene, DNA, and drug classification and common analysis techniques.

4. What other programs have you been involved with at the university?

Several members of our department received funding for an educational program – Research Experience for Undergraduates – for three summers, but we were able to extend it for a fourth summer. We invited students from around the country whose universities are not able to offer novel research experiences. We choose about 10 students to work in our research laboratories for eight weeks of the summer semester, teaching them about all aspects of research, including ethics. We trained them to do a research project we were already working on. The students get a lot of experience conducting viable research projects.

Early on in my career at UCCS, the department received a grant to design a course to prepare students to conduct research with a faculty member in the sciences. Students who applied and were accepted into to this course would learn research skills from several faculty members. Students would work with one faculty member for several weeks then in research laboratories for several weeks then rotate into another faculty member’s research laboratory to learn another set of research skills.  If the students liked doing research with a certain faculty member, they could continue working in their group in the summer with a stipend. 

5. Do you have a favorite item or artifact that you keep in your office? If so, what is it and what is the story behind it?

I collect geodes and mineral crystals and have a lot of them in my office. The mineral makeup and formation is so interesting. I have a few crystals of aquamarine, which is my birthstone; quartz, which is commonly found in this area; amethyst; citrate; and other colorful minerals that I have gathered over the years. It’s too bad large diamonds are not common in Colorado. The Gems and Minerals display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is my favorite exhibit.

Tagged with: