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For professors, blaming students who don’t understand basic chemistry must be tempting. Maybe they didn’t study hard enough, or maybe they didn’t ask for help.
But Melanie Cooper’s years of research into how chemistry students learn show that most have a fundamental misunderstanding of chemistry concepts through no fault of their own.
“Most chemistry ideas are composed of lots of different concepts that have to come together if students are going to understand,” explains Cooper, 59, a chemistry professor at Michigan State University. Those include the language of chemistry, the structures, the theoretical models, to name just a few. “If something goes wrong in any one of those areas, it kind of ripples out.”
Cooper has spent her career figuring out where chemistry teaching has gone wrong and then designing curricula to make learning chemistry more robust. This work earned Cooper her ACS award.
“Professor Cooper has dedicated her career to researching how students develop conceptual understanding in chemistry and has applied this research in large, introductory chemistry courses,” explains Kristen Murphy, an assistant professor of chemical education at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Going to college in England, Cooper was one of the highly motivated students who push past what is taught in chemistry class and teach themselves what they need to know to succeed. But she says most chemistry students aren’t that way.
“They are not going to be chemistry faculty and, frankly, they don’t want to be. It is important to take into account what students need to know rather than what we, as chemistry faculty, want them to know,” she says.
That disconnect became clear when she first started teaching. “So much of what I was teaching and so much of what the students were doing was not productive,” she says. She was forcing students to memorize unnecessary information and giving them recipe-driven labs that don’t reflect the creativity of real science. “I eventually realized I wanted to change our approach.”
Cooper was lucky enough to get a tenure-track position at Clemson University that focused on chemistry education research, a rare commodity in 1987.
Her first move was to change labs to make them more problem-based, which she found was better for both students and teaching assistants because it showed students how science really works. Then Cooper turned her efforts to large introductory classes, where she introduced Web-based systems to help analyze what large numbers of students understand and, perhaps more important, misunderstand. She started designing lessons to explicitly redirect students where they were going off track.
Last year, Cooper moved to Michigan State, where she is extending a new National Science Foundation-supported curriculum reform project to very large classes. It is based on scaffolded progressions of ideas that build from atomic structure and interactions through to networked biological reactions.
“We want there to be less opportunity to get lost worrying about a trivial idea and more opportunity to come back to a more scientifically accurate way of thinking about a concept,” she explains.
Cooper will present her award address before the Division of Chemical Education.