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Chemistry Educator Focuses on Boosting Student Learning

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Since childhood, Sachel Villafañe has been intrigued by science and learning how things work. As an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Cal State Fullerton, she is helping others become interested, too.

Her research focuses on better understanding the experiences of underrepresented science students and how their experiences influence academic performance and persistence in chemistry courses, as well as in other STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Before joining CSUF this academic year, Villafañe conducted postdoctoral research at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she earned her doctorate in chemistry-chemistry education research. She also holds a bachelor’s degree and a M.S. in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

What inspired you to go into your field and what was the defining moment?

During college, I was fascinated by chemistry and how it can explain how everything around me works. But as with many students, I found chemistry to be very abstract and challenging. When I had the opportunity to teach, first as a teaching assistant and then as instructor, I realized that I wanted to know more about how to help students learn chemistry, and more specifically, I wanted to find out why chemistry was so challenging for them. In order to answer these questions, I became a chemistry education researcher.

What are your research interests?

My research focuses on understanding how the chemistry curriculum influences student learning, their interest in science and preparation for the workforce. This involves using quantitative and qualitative methods to understand different cognitive and affective factors, using instruments that produce reliable and valid results to inform, evaluate and improve instruction, and understanding how instructors use these assessments when teaching.

How do you engage students in your classes and/or your research?

I try to engage my students by helping them make connections between abstract concepts and the real world so they realize the importance of chemistry in everyday life. Also, by helping them develop process skills, such as teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving, I hope to engage and keep them interested in science.  

What changes do you envision in your field five years from now?

I envision better communication between research and practice. There is a gap between what we know about teaching and learning chemistry through research and what we actually do in practice. As educators and researchers, we need to promote more activities designed to close that gap.

What is the one thing you like most about chemistry/biochemistry?

One thing that I like the most is that we can explain how the world works by understanding the behavior of such tiny particles called atoms.