Chemical Education Roundup, 8-16-11

It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup! The world of chemical education has been relatively quiet over the last month, although a few interesting things have happened (mostly in education-at-large). A while back, I blogged about Moskovitz and Kellogg’s intriguing idea of “double-blind science writing“—setting up laboratory experiments and reports so that neither students nor graders had an expectation of what their results should be. The aim of the exercise is to rip the bed of procedural and predictive comfort out from under students’ (and graders’) feet. Such a setup, argue the authors, forces students to use well-supported, rational arguments in lieu of the regurgitative, droning garbage that one usually sees in lab reports, and forces graders to evaluate students’ arguments as arguments—just as they would evaluate an academic paper.

On July 29, Science published a brief retort to the Moskovitz paper by Michael Goggin, a physics instructor who argues…

The first priority should be ensuring that the students get the correct result; their ability to articulate that result is secondary. (emphasis mine)

Goggin’s stated objection is that Moskovitz’s approach aims to teach writing more than science. However, in my opinion, a sufficiently open-minded scientist should take issue with Goggin’s assumption that the ideal lab experiment has “the correct result.” On the contrary, conservative experiments with spelled-out “correct results” lead students to believe that a career in science consists of proving what is already known. As any blue-blooded scientist knows, the opposite is true—most scientists spend their careers convincing others that their work is new! The work of undergraduates does not have to be new per se, but it should be new enough to them that constructing a convincing argument requires learning, not just regurgitation. Moskovitz’s approach to scientific writing is thus a step in the right direction. In a response to Goggin, Moskovitz and Kellogg offer this argument and others (among them: lectures give ample opportunity for students to find “correct answers”) in support of their ideas.

A little closer to home for me personally, Neil Selwyn has written an intriguing editorial in the British Journal of Educational Technology about the need for “pessimism” in the field. I put “pessimism” in quotes because what Selwyn argues for is less pessimism and more “healthy skepticism.” Selwyn states (truly) that there is an obsession among educational technologists with the use of technology as representing “progress” in education. Technology use seems to be associated with progress everywhere else in our lives—why should education be any different? Of course, in all aspects of human life, technology has its downsides. Selwyn argues (again, truthfully) that educators that use technology are often blind to the limitations, pitfalls, and “everything old is new again”-ness of what they do. How much in educational technology is actually new, he asks? Less than we think. ETs need a fresh challenge, a kick in the pants, a wake-up call that alerts us to the fact that what we’re doing may not be all it’s cracked up to be—which could be a good thing! Connections to past scholarship (and challenges to move beyond it) will only do good for the field of educational technology in the long run.

Other news and editorials: an interesting study of central nervous system drugs using calculated electrostatic potential energy surfaces, the harsh realities of narcissism and grade inflation, and a piece from the EIC of the Journal of Chemical Education on striking a balance with assessment. If you haven’t already, read about the epic standardized-test cheating scandal in Atlanta referenced in the last article.

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