Iowa City, IA

University of Iowa chemistry professor Renée Cole devotes her research to exploring how students learn chemistry and the best methods to teach it to students. Her research revolves around moving away from traditional lectures and into an interactive learning environment.

“My ultimate goal is to transform undergraduate STEM teaching to where it’s the norm to have students engaged in meaningful learning in the classroom,” Cole says.

Cole leads a group of seven undergraduate and graduate students on many different projects, all with the same goal: improving student success and enjoyment when learning chemistry. Cole’s research group analyzes the current teaching strategies used in chemistry courses and tests new ways to improve the classroom environment.

Her favorite project with her students is their discourse analysis work, which involves dissecting discussion-based classes and evaluating the content of what students are saying to improve the dialogue between students. The project will further inform STEM educators about how to design their curricula.

“The discourse analysis has made me think a little differently about how we measure engagement in the classroom,” she says. “We found that students who ask questions can be greatly beneficial to a discussion environment, and it shows that students are truly engaged in the discussion and actively trying to learn the material.”

Another project that the research group leads is “TILE: Transform, Interact, Learn, and Engage for Success in STEM Education.” This project seeks to encourage instructors to integrate active learning strategies in their classroom.

“Through TILE we are able to give instructors concrete, research-based evidence that shows what type of teaching will directly improve their students’ education,” Cole says.

During her time at Iowa, Cole has received prestigious recognition for her work, including being named a Collegiate Scholar by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, one of the college’s highest faculty honors. She is an American Chemical Society Fellow and has received the Iowa Women of Innovation Award in recognition of her impact on improving education. Cole also serves as Program Chair for the Women Chemist Committee of the American Chemical Society, and is the UI representative for the national Association of American Universities STEM Initiative.

“Receiving these awards is very rewarding and validating to me,” Cole says. “But what’s most important is that they let me know that what I am doing each day in my research and teaching is leaving a positive impact on our department and on our students’ success.”