Overview and Mission

A unique graduation requirement of all Carleton students is the integrative exercise, also known on campus as “comps.” The Chemistry Department treats comps as a senior capstone experience that helps students transition from academic course work to becoming independent, life-long learners. Our goals for comps are to give students an opportunity to decompartmentalize their knowledge of chemistry, to apply their academic skills to a difficult problem without obvious answers, and to build new understanding of a cutting edge research field without significant guidance from a professor.

The Group Discussion Option

Most of our students complete this requirement in what we call “group comps.” In a group comps experience students are assembled into groups to study the research of a prominent chemist. For ten weeks (usually during winter term) each group grapples with trying to understand the chemist’s research through reading the primary literature and group discussion. Learning chemistry at this level requires the students to not only draw on everything they have already learned in course work, but to also realize where their knowledge gaps exist — then to go out and fill those gaps by obtaining and studying the necessary background information. This is all done with a minimum of guidance from a faculty advisor.

The experience concludes (usually in early spring term) with the prominent chemists visiting campus and having an extended discussion of their research with the comps group. (See a list of previous comps visitors and topics.) This discussion gives the students the opportunity to test their understanding of the science, propose possible research directions, hear about current unpublished findings, and to interact one-on-one with a highly respected scientist.

Options for an Individual Comps Experience

Not all students are able or want to participate in a group comps experience. Scheduling issues or a lack of desire to work within a group format are reasons students might opt for an individual option. The Chemistry Department offers two individual options for completing the college-wide comps requirement: the Literature-Based option or the Research-Based Option. See timelines and information about the current year’s comps in the 2022 Chemistry Comps Document.

Literature-Based Option

For this option the student selects a topic of personal interest on which to write a 20–30 page paper. The student must find a faculty member willing to serve as an advisor and must submit a proposal to the department describing their topic. This option involves considerable library work in order to become familiar with the primary literature of the topic.

Typical literature topic long papers usually have four to six primary literature articles that the student has analyzed in great detail. The paper is not merely a library report, but is designed to involve the student in the topic as a critical scientist. Personal judgments, criticisms, and suggestions for future directions play an important role in an excellent paper. Towards the end of the project another faculty member will be asked to serve as a second reader. The project will conclude with a closed discussion of the paper and its conclusions with the faculty advisor and the second reader.

Research-Based Option

This option is available to students who have been, or are presently involved in, a laboratory research project. It is intended to provide an opportunity for students to extend the scope of their laboratory accomplishments to a broader perspective through the writing of a paper or the completion of a presentation, such as a poster or seminar. The research-based option is not a massive lab report. Rather, it is a research paper or presentation, using the literature and laboratory work to explore a topic, part of which the student has become familiar with through a laboratory research project.

Seminar Attendance Requirement

Seminars are both excellent learning and networking opportunities for students, and provide a critical lens through which understand what it means to be a chemist. To enable students to develop a broad picture of chemistry as a field before engaging in the culminating activities of Comps, starting with the class of 2024, Chemistry majors will be required to attend at least 10 seminars between the term in which they declare and the end of winter term of their senior year to ensure breadth in the exposure to the ways chemists approach their work. Comps seminars in a student’s senior year (which are already required) do not count towards this requirement, since one of the benefits will be for all students to have attended many talks prior to presenting their own, and to have learned how professionals present their work. Up to 3 of the required 10 seminars could be research seminars (open to the public) in any other STEM department (or, potentially at another institution, such as St. Olaf) since they also highlight the many ways in which scientific training can be used after Carleton. A form will be available soon for students to put in requests for out-of-department seminars, which will be then approved by the Comps director.