Student Researchers Explore the Power of Critical Thinking & Chem

While many aspects of higher education were in limbo this summer due to the ongoing pandemic, progress was being made in scientific research at Kent State University at Geauga. Two handpicked undergraduate students worked as professional researchers — online — under the guidance of their professor, contributing to the field of chemistry education.

The 2020 eight-week Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program proceeded under the leadership of Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Zhiqiang Molly Wang, Ph.D. Her SURE students were college-sophomore Sarah Maida, a medical technology major; and Lucas He, a high school sophomore who attends Kent State Geauga as a College Credit Plus (CCP) student. Lucas had just finished AP chemistry and Sarah was enrolled in Dr. Wang’s General Chemistry II class. 

Dr. Wang has worked with students majoring in science, health, and engineering for many years. She has noticed that “many students lack critical thinking skills, which are a part of the 21st-century group of essential skills, along with communication, collaboration, and creativity.”

This concern — compounded by the challenges imposed by the COVID crisis — prompted her decision to focus her SURE research project toward chemistry education.

Typically, Dr. Wang’s research area involves bioinorganic chemistry and biochemistry, which require performing hands-on experiments in the lab. “Due to the pandemic situation, working in the lab was hindered, so I decided to switch gears in the chemical education direction to fit the current situation. In this case, we continued providing a research experience for our students while keeping my research moving, as well,” she explains.

The research project was designed to determine which methods could be used by professors and students to foster critical thinking skills. The project goal was to foster students’ critical thinking skills through competitive chemistry tests. Research involved the SURE students taking sample tests (written and lab-oriented) from the Chemistry Science Olympiad website.

“Students often have the misconception that chemistry is a subject mainly built on memorization and recitation,” Dr. Wang explains. “The truth is, chemistry is everywhere in our daily life and critical thinking plays an important role if anyone strives to master their knowledge of chemistry and apply it to the development of the innovative products and technologies to make our lives better.” 

Dr. Wang attributes students’ lack of critical thinking skills — hence their potential success — to insufficient training, especially among younger students, such as high school-aged CCP students taking courses on the college campus.

“Covering the contents in the syllabus and lecturing in the limited class time often cannot provide a supportive framework to encourage students’ critical thinking skills,” notes Dr. Wang.

“If we can create an environment and provide effective practice and encouragement to our students, their critical thinking can be fostered and improved. Developing critical thinking skills is even more important for students at an early age, which could lay a solid foundation for their future career.”    

Dr. Wang also hoped the project would further motivate students’ interests in STEM, improve their communication skills, increase their confidence in peer mentoring, improve high school students’ readiness to take science classes in college, and increase students’ retention rates on campus.

A photo of student Sarah Maida
Sarah reports, “We did reach our objective of determining methods to foster critical thinking skills. This was accomplished through peer mentoring, individual study, careful analysis of exam questions, and guidance from Dr. Wang.”
Lucas agrees their research goal was accomplished. “Over the course of the project, both of our scores increased by more than 30%. We found that the best way to foster critical thinking skills was to evaluate skills and weaknesses as well as to work through difficult questions and thought processes with peers. Your peers often have different ways to approach tasks and completely different ways of thinking.”
A photo of student Lucas He

Dr. Wang and her SURE assistants plan to present research results at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, and eventually to publish their findings in the Journal of Chemical Education.

“The methods we found will not only help my future educational research but also could be used in my future lecture and lab classrooms teaching,” Dr. Wang says. “I was also thrilled that during these eight weeks’ intensive research, my students’ interests in STEM disciplines dramatically increased, and their ability for peer collaboration also greatly improved. I look forward to moving this research project on to the next stage.”

Sarah attested that, over the project timeline, “I improved my own critical thinking skills and gained a deeper understanding of the topics I previously studied in General Chemistry l and ll. This will serve to help me for years to come in all of my future classes and career.”

Lucas concurred, saying, “Not only did I gain important insight into the various aspects of

scientific research, but I also learned how to best improve my own critical thinking skills, which is really essential for when I graduate high school and venture out into the world of higher education. I have been considering majoring in some aspect of science, and this research project has only strengthened that case."

The results are in. Despite the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, invigorating scientific exploration took place this summer through the SURE program at Kent State Geauga, strengthening critical thinking skills along the way. These research findings can be incorporated by individuals for greater well-being at school, at work, and in life.


Dr. Arne Weigold and student Emily Turkily also participated in the SURE program; read their story "Student Researcher Makes Scientific Discovery Involving Hope".

POSTED: Monday, October 26, 2020 - 3:08pm
UPDATED: Monday, October 26, 2020 - 3:15pm
Estelle R. Brown