Issue Date: March 10, 2008
CHEMICAL EDUCATION research (CER), a relatively new discipline concerned with the issues of both teaching and learning chemistry, draws on theories, tools, and experimental designs of several fields such as education, psychology, and sociology. Because it is often misunderstood within the field of chemistry, two professors of chemistry, Diane M. Bunce of Catholic University of America (CUA) and Renee S. Cole of the University of Central Missouri, have edited this no-nonsense, practical guide by 18 contributors, including themselves.
Bunce is the founding editor of the Journal of Chemical Education's Chemical Education Research feature, 2000 chair of the American Chemical Society Division of Chemical Education (which sponsored the book) and the recipient of numerous teaching awards, including the Chemical Manufacturers Association's Catalyst Award for national excellence in college chemistry teaching (1998), ACS's Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach (2001), and ACS's James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry (2007). The authors have eminently succeeded in attaining their goal: "to provide an overview of the components of chemical education research and to discuss the process of how questions in this field are addressed."
In the first of the book's 14 chapters, "Using This Book To Find Answers to Chemical Education Questions," Bunce and Cole point out that the perceptions and expectations of CER by chemical education researchers, chemical researchers, chemistry teachers, and funding agencies often differ from each other. They provide an overview of the field for these different groups and discuss just what constitutes quality CER. They guide readers interested in different themes to particular chapters, and they include a "road map" so that readers can find answers to nine specific questions, including how to generate ideas to investigate, develop appropriate methodologies, assess student learning, locate a funding foundation or agency, and collaborate with others in CER projects. Many of the chapters are replete with useful figures, charts, recommended readings, or pertinent references, including Internet sites.
Stanford University professor of chemistry Richard N. Zare poses 20 vitally important questions for teaching chemistry in introductory college or university courses in chapter 2, "Questions to Chemical Educators from the Chemistry Community." Although these questions are primarily addressed to chemical education researchers, he argues that the answers provided will exert little impact unless chemists, chemical education researchers, and the wider chemical community can communicate with and respect each other.
Chapter 3, "Funding Chemical Education Research," by chemistry professors Loretta L. Jones and Maureen A. Scharberg of the University of Northern Colorado and San Jose State University, respectively, and student Jessica R. VandenPlas of CUA, presents the key ingredients for successfully writing CER proposals, including finding appropriate funding agencies, responding to calls for proposals, and creating budgets. Coeditor Bunce in chapter 4, "Constructing Good and Researchable Questions," leads the reader stepwise to identifying a problem and developing a researchable question to be investigated. Such a question, she writes, should have five components: Is the question worth asking? Is it feasible? Who will be studied? How will it be investigated? What is the potential "take home" message (result) of the investigation?
Theory can guide research practice, curriculum development, and evaluation, and it can help develop instructional tactics and strategies. That's the message in chapter 5, "Importance of a Theoretical Framework for Research," by University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Michael R. Abraham. CER theory, he writes, can be derived from psychology, sociology, philosophy, or other disciplines.
CER studies of how students learn about the behavior of particles, which chemists use to explain chemical and physical phenomena, are discussed in chapter 6, "The Particulate Nature of Matter: An Example of How Theory-Based Research Can Impact the Field," by Texas A&M University senior lecturer Vickie M. Williamson. Early studies disclosed that students did not understand particle action, whereas later studies, which explored treatments or interventions to aid them to do so, resulted in many educational insights concerning how students visualize particle behavior.
In chapter 7, "Qualitative Research Designs in Chemistry Education Research," Miami University chemistry professor Stacey Lowery Bretz investigates the relationship between research question and research design, and she summarizes procedures used to collect data in qualitative research. She also explores the conduct of this research in relation to the traditional methods of chemical research.
Michael J. Sanger, a Middle Tennessee State University chemistry professor, enumerates and discusses eight steps for carrying out or evaluating CER using inferential statistics in chapter 8, "Using Inferential Statistics To Answer Quantitative Chemical Research Questions." He also employs examples of visualization techniques to show how chemical education researchers decide which statistical tests to use in evaluating research questions.
In chapter 9, "Mixed Methods Designs in Chemical Education Research," Purdue University associate professor of chemistry Marcy Hamby Towns describes and gives examples in which researchers use both qualitative and quantitative methods in the same study to balance the strengths and weaknesses of each methodology. This approach results in more valid and interpretable outcomes than the use of either approach alone.
Chemistry professors Kathryn Scantlebury and William J. Boone of the University of Delaware and Miami University, respectively, describe in chapter 10, "Designing Tests and Surveys for Chemical Education Research," how to design and evaluate surveys and tests by using pencil and paper techniques, including item wordings; use of figures; selection scales; and text layout; and by using the Rasch psychometric model to guide the initial development of instruments, evaluate data-set quality, communicate research results, and conduct longitudinal studies. The model is especially useful in psychometrics, the field concerned with the theory and technique of psychological and educational measurement, and can be used for analyzing data from assessments to measure things such as attitudes and personality traits.
Clemson University Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Education Melanie M. Cooper discusses in chapter 11, "Drawing Meaningful Conclusions from Education Experiments," how to avoid the types of problems and errors that can occur in CER. Among these are confusing cause with effect, overgeneralization, anecdotal evidence, failure to control for differences in student population, mistaking self-reported learning for actual improvements, and disturbing the test population by the investigation itself.
Going beyond examination scores, University of New Hampshire chemistry education professor Christopher F. Bauer, coeditor Cole, and the late Mark F. Walter of Oakton Community College, in chapter 12, "Assessment of Student Learning: Guidance for Instructors," describe how to set assessment goals, develop guiding questions, select appropriate procedures and tools, and collect and analyze data. In chapter 13, "Collaborative Projects: Being the Chemical Education Resource," University of California, San Diego, chemistry professor Barbara A. Sawrey shows how chemistry departments can highlight and use chemical education researchers in collaborative projects involving departmental colleagues, faculty from other departments or universities, members of the community, or K-12 school districts. Everyone involved benefits, and the collaboration impacts both science and educational research.
And finally, Purdue University associate chemistry professor Gabriela C. Weaver, in chapter 14, "Building a Fruitful Relationship between the Chemistry and Chemical Education Communities within a Department of Chemistry," describes ways in which the aims of chemistry departments and chemical education researchers can be identified and how the overlap between them can be found. She discusses possible modes of collaboration and interaction, along with the importance of communication among chemical education researchers, other scientists, and the general public.
I am pleased to recommend this much-needed and unique guide to a wide audience—chemists who wish to understand and evaluate the CER literature so they can use it in their classes, chemists concerned with carrying out CER or writing CER grant proposals, beginning chemical education researchers who want to learn more about their chosen field, experienced chemical education researchers who want to review the field, students interested in this relatively new field, and members of funding agencies or foundations charged with evaluating CER grant proposals.
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