Issue Date: September 22, 2008
Chemistry Teachers Get Schooled
Motivated athletes can work with seasoned coaches at training camps to hone their sports skills. Musicians can attend master classes to improve their playing techniques. But where can chemistry instructors turn to improve their game?
More than 800 chemistry educators looking for fresh new ways to teach their subject and to share classroom and laboratory experiences gathered earlier this summer at Indiana University, Bloomington, to attend the 20th Biennial Conference on Chemical Education (BCCE).
“BCCE is designed to provide attendees with opportunities to interact with chemistry instructors of all levels in formal and informal settings,” said Steven M. Wietstock, assistant chemistry professor at University of Notre Dame and a meeting organizer. Through symposia, workshops, and other forums, the meeting helps teachers make connections with dedicated chemistry educators and learn what works in their colleagues’ classrooms, Wietstock added.
The event, which drew participants from several countries, brought together science and chemistry teachers from middle and high schools. It also attracted chemistry instructors from small colleges as well as professors from large research universities.
As is the case in just about every aspect of life, the Internet had a strong presence at the conference. One tool educators learned about was modeled on the ideal of having an experienced private tutor on hand 24/7, who would teach students fundamental chemistry concepts and provide line-by-line feedback as students work to solve multistep problems. That’s a level of commitment hard to find in real tutors, but electronic tutors stand ready and uncomplaining to help students at any hour of the day.
Sheila D. Woodgate, a chemistry instructor at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, developed that kind of a tutor in the form of an interactive website known as Bestchoice. Woodgate says she designed the free Internet-based teaching tool to simulate the real-time interchange between a student and an experienced teacher. By providing brief explanations and other forms of feedback immediately as students answer questions and work through problems, Bestchoice helps them understand why their answers are correct or incorrect. The electronic teaching aid offers hints that guide students toward correct answers, just like a real one-on-one teacher might do.
Bestchoice includes some 200 modules covering concepts such as stoichiometry, kinetics, electrochemistry, and introductory organic chemistry. The program was initially developed for students studying first-year college chemistry and has been expanded for use by high school students. Woodgate noted that in 2007, Bestchoice attracted some 8,000 heavy users among students in New Zealand and the U.K., as well as many more occasional users. She added that the program collects various forms of chemistry-education data including statistics about which questions students tend to answer correctly or incorrectly. This feedback helps her bolster the content of poorly understood areas and to improve the overall program, she says.
In Vickie M. Williamson’s experience, a chemistry instructor at Texas A&M University, sometimes students come up with correct answers—especially to questions involving calculations—without properly understanding the underlying physical concepts. As a case in point, she noted that students may be able to correctly solve gas-law and other types of problems but have misconceptions about the molecular-scale processes addressed in those calculations.
Williamson and other scientists who study chemistry education find that three-dimensional models and molecular animations can help students grasp the relevant concepts. She noted that research has shown that the dynamic nature of animations helps students construct mental models based on moving particles, which is appropriate for most chemical processes. Fortunately, many of those kinds of teaching aids are available at little or no cost.
One of those tools, known as the Molecular Level Experiments Project, consists of a collection of interactive Web-based simulations of chemical processes that can be manipulated in instructive ways. For example, to learn about the processes described by the gas laws, students can independently adjust pressure, temperature, volume, and the number of moles of several gases and observe the effect on the system. The website also includes simulations that help students learn about chemical equilibria, electrochemistry, and other topics.
The Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning & Online Teaching is another repository filled with numerous chemical simulations and other teaching aids that instructors like Williamson find useful for helping students grasp chemistry concepts. The collection features materials in a broad range of topics including macromolecular, nuclear, inorganic, and analytical chemistry.
Models and animations may be useful for clearing up a class full of college students’ chemistry misconceptions. But in a world in which basic science is rather unpopular among students of all ages, what can be done to encourage students to attend those chemistry classes in the first place?
Around the world, today’s high school students tend to consider chemistry an irrelevant topic filled with unfamiliar and abstract concepts, Ron Blonder of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, said at the Bloomington gathering. Blonder is part of a group of science educators from Israel and eight European countries that is trying to increase chemistry’s appeal to young students through a program called Popularity & Relevance of Science Education for Scientific Literacy (PARSEL).
The PARSEL team aims to engage youngsters and encourage their interest in chemistry and other areas of science by developing relevant, interesting, and novel teaching materials for grades seven through 12. The materials are collected in a series of modules that are available at no cost on the Internet to teachers everywhere.
Each of the science modules contains background information for students and teachers, classroom and laboratory (or makeshift laboratory) exercises, preparation instructions, teaching tips, and other materials. The chemistry collection includes units that focus on analysis of popcorn, candy, and other foods and investigations of the properties of consumer products such as soaps, toothpastes, and cleaning agents. Also included are units on climate change, zero-emissions automobiles, and the hazards of smoking. Judging by written feedback, Blonder said that many of the students find the science units to be relevant and interesting.
Elsewhere at the Weizmann Institute, Hannah Margel has developed a program that “interweaves teachers’ professional development and students’ educational enrichment,” she said. She noted that today’s high school teachers are often expected to present material to students on cutting-edge topics such as nanotechnology. Yet because most high school laboratories are not well equipped, few high school students and teachers ever have the chance to participate directly in modern experiments.
Margel is working to improve that situation by arranging for high school science teachers and their students to spend time at Weizmann laboratories using advanced instruments and computers. The program, which goes by its acronym, NECHMAD (Hebrew for “lovely”), calls for teachers to visit the lab in advance to prepare for the lesson and to be trained in the use of instruments, and then to return with their students to teach and supervise the laboratory exercises.
The program offers hands-on experience in various topics including wine and food chemistry, analysis of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and investigations of polymers and advanced fibers. Other units focus on subjects in physics, biology, forensics, and environmental sciences. Margel noted that some 7,500 high school students from all over Israel participated in NECHMAD in 2007 and that, overall, teachers and students gave positive feedback.
Hobnobbing for several days with a large group of chemistry instructors is bound to provide enthusiastic educators with a treasure trove of tips, suggestions, and ideas. “Don’t try them all at once. You’ll be overwhelmed,” Williamson warned attendees at a session designed to bring new teachers in contact with seasoned pros. Instead, she suggested, pick a few appealing ideas, go back and try them in your own classrooms, and see what works.
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