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Chemistry Platoon Helps Student Veterans Succeed in Science
Iowa Ag Connection - 05/14/2018

When Scott Daly entered college after serving in the military, he wanted to take an introductory chemistry class. His academic advisor tried to dissuade him.

"Why don't you take general education classes instead," Daly recalls the advisor telling him. "You want to stay away from (science) classes. They are harder."

It's a good thing Daly ignored the advice.

The assistant professor in the University of Iowa Department of Chemistry now wants to make sure student veterans don't encounter obstacles to taking courses in chemistry--or any science, for that matter. He has established small-group sessions for UI student veterans to help each other in their chemistry courses. Dubbed the Chemistry Platoon, the regular sessions are led by a student veteran and chemistry major who is willing to work through complex chemistry formulas or act as a sympathetic ear for fellow veterans transitioning to college life.

"It's probably the most rewarding thing I've done since I've been here," says Daly, who started the sessions in fall 2015. "It's personally fulfilling, just given how I got here and what I've learned along the way."

Daly's understanding comes directly from his own experiences. He enlisted in the Army at age 17 after an admittedly mediocre interest in high school. Assigned first as a driver and then gunner in a tank command unit, Daly spent three years on active duty and was honorably discharged just weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He enrolled at Joliet Junior Community College in Illinois and took mostly general education classes for several years before deciding to take his first chemistry classes "on a whim," he says.

"I had an outstanding instructor who would tell stories in class about the making of atomic weapons during World War II," Daly recalls. "He would then show how the chemistry we were learning related to some of those very important World War II--era research efforts. I was hooked after that semester."

Daly eventually transferred to North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, to major in the field. After he graduated, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Illinois.

"Looking back, I wonder what might have been if I hadn't found chemistry," Daly says.

Soon after he joined the UI in 2014, Daly noticed student veterans were taking chemistry classes and wondered how they were faring. After looking into it, he learned they weren't performing as well as their peers.

"The question was then, is there something we can do to support this population?" Daly says.

Daly decided to organize a study group. At first, a few student veterans attended. But as word spread among the tight-knit veteran community on campus, more joined. And, their grades improved--so much that student veterans are now outperforming their chemistry classmates, Daly says.

With funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Daly has expanded the Chemistry Platoon to reach more student veterans. The group meets as many as three times per week in the fall (when most students take challenging introductory chemistry courses) and once a week in the spring. Dozens of student veterans have attended the sessions.

The Chemistry Platoon's main objective, naturally, is to help student veterans succeed at chemistry. But it serves the secondary but important purpose of establishing camaraderie among students, who generally are older than their peers.

"People come here for academic help, and we all become friends," says Ryan Salacinski, a UI junior and former Marine who also conducts research in Daly's lab.

Like Daly, Salacinski entered college after a stint in the military, unsure what he wanted to study. He struggled in an introductory chemistry course, Principles of Chemistry I, when he found fellow veterans in the Chemistry Platoon.

"They were my lifelines here," says Salacinski, who grew up in Billings, Montana. "It's hard to succeed in these classes by yourself."

Recently, Salacinski led a study group that alternated from an intensive tutorial with a homework assignment in thermochemistry to chatter about the common experience in the military of eating MREs (packaged "meals ready to eat") during the holidays.

"It's been a godsend for me, that's for sure," says Lydia Downey, an Army veteran who's taking chemistry classes as part of a pre-medicine track.

Manny Cisneros echoes that sentiment, adding that he is inspired by watching other veterans be successful.

"Someone like Dr. Daly, who was in the service and is now a chemistry professor, that gives me hope," says Cisneros, who was a sergeant in the Marines and is seeking to be admitted into the UI College of Nursing. "Up until I started with the Chemistry Platoon, I hadn't met any veteran who had gone that high academically."

Daly says his perspective both as a veteran and an academic is valuable.

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