Zahilyn Roche Allred is on a mission to transform the way chemistry is taught in college classrooms.
The distinguished postdoctoral researcher in FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education is developing and redesigning hands-on classroom activities that improve learning outcomes.
That wasn’t always her plan. She initially thought she’d become a medical doctor, helping children with cerebral palsy like her sister. However, hospitals became a painful reminder of her sister’s passing in 2011, leaving her wondering what she would do next.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from FIU, Roche Allred received a call from a friend with an unexpected job opportunity — a sixth grade science teacher at Archimedean Middle Conservatory in West Miami-Dade. Roche Allred’s friend wanted to know if she was interested. What may have been the last thing she expected became one of the most pivotal moments of her life. It began her journey in chemistry education.
Roche Allred found joy in helping students make connections between science and real-life experiences. But something was still missing.
“I really enjoyed being in the classroom, but I felt I needed to have the training to be in the classroom as an educator,” Roche Allred said. “I was trained as a chemist. I wasn’t trained as an educator.”
In 2014, Roche Allred packed her bags and headed to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry with a specialization in chemistry education research. She worked with one of the top leaders in the field, Stacey Lowery Bretz, to develop diagnostic assessments to measure students’ ideas or misconceptions on various topics in chemistry including the electronic structure of the atom.
Roche Allred’s research focuses on the cross-disciplinary nature of biochemistry. Her interests include investigating the challenges associated with teaching an interdisciplinary course, like biochemistry, and the development of instructional materials to offset those challenges and support student learning.
Today, Roche Allred gets to combine her two passions — chemistry and teaching. She is working with FIU Assistant Professor Sonia Underwood to assist in the expansion and adaptation of Organic Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything (OCLUE) — an evidence-based curriculum for organic chemistry courses developed by scientists at Michigan State University. To date, the adoption of OCLUE at partnering institutions has led to significant improvements in student outcomes, including an increase in passing rates in general chemistry 1 and 2, both overall and for underrepresented students. Underwood has adopted one of the lecture courses to fit FIU’s active learning style by incorporating interactive in-class activities.
Roche Allred’s project — Expanding the Adoption of Evidence-Based Curriculum in Chemistry Gateway Courses (EXPAND) — will build on her previous work to transform how chemistry is taught. After they receive data from the first year, Roche Allred and Underwood will decide how to proceed further with helping collaborating institutions to adopt OCLUE.
“FIU is a very different institution from where the OCLUE course is taught right now,” Roche Allred said. “The demographics are completely different. We have to figure out if the course could be implemented at FIU how it is now.”
Roche Allred hopes to build upon her prior experiences and training as preparation for a future career as a faculty member.