Work with undergrads nets national award for Bates professor

Thomas J. Wenzel, a resident of Auburn and a chemistry professor at Bates College, is one of two educators nationally to receive a 2002 CUR Fellows Award from the Council on Undergraduate Research.

Based in Washington, D.C., CUR promotes high-quality collaborations in scholarship and research between faculty and undergraduate students. The CUR Fellows awards are presented biennially to CUR members who are leaders in developing nationally respected research programs involving undergrads.

Wenzel, who is Charles A. Dana Professor of Chemistry at Bates, is expert in the fields of chirality (an aspect of molecular structure) and liquid chromatography. In his courses, he challenges students to think as scientists and to apply their knowledge to open-ended problems. He advocates a “problem-based” method to teaching in which students’ research topics address real-world problems, such as lead pollution in soil.

Kristin Smith of Plattsburgh, N.Y., a senior chemistry major who has investigated chirality with Wenzel, can testify to the effectiveness of his teaching. Thanks to her work in that field, this year Smith was one of four undergraduates nationwide to receive the American Chemical Society’s I.M. Kolthoff Enrichment Award, and last year won a $5,000 research fellowship from the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer Inc.

Wenzel, Smith says, is “an excellent teacher because he feels strongly about collaborative learning rather than lecturing the class.” Working in small groups, his classes learn through hands-on research, with Wenzel explaining the problems or unexpected phenomena they encounter. That way, “we get to understand the concepts really thoroughly,” Smith says. “It’s a really excellent approach to teaching.”

Wenzel’s innovative approaches to teaching and collaborative research have previously earned national recognition, including the Giddings Award of the Analytical Division of the American Chemical Society. He has chaired both the chemistry department and the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Bates. He is a past president of CUR and edits the CUR Quarterly.

Considered role models for students and other faculty, CUR Fellows not only engage students in important research but have solid records of obtaining funding for the work, publishing results, and institutionalizing research on their campuses and in the nation. The $1,000 awards will be presented at the ninth National CUR Conference, at Connecticut College in June.

The other winner of the 2002 award was Joseph A. Gallian, a professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.

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