I’m sitting in the airport in San Diego, ready to head back home after a stint at the 243rd National ACS Meeting. All I can say is…wow. It’s been an amazing two days of presentations, posters, and networking. I finally met some long-time Twitter followers in real life, and got the chance to talk shop with some of my heroes in chemical education. Very cool. Some of my favorite highlights from the chemical education programming follow.
A symposium on Sunday “by grad students, for grad students” focused on research in chemical education (and featured yours truly… :D). Taken as a whole, the symposium highlighted the amazing breadth and focus that chemical education research has gained over the past few years. Clear research paradigms are emerging that, in the long run, are going to fundamentally alter how we teach chemistry. Although I think it’s sometimes hard to feel excited watching the literature and working day to day, the wheels are in motion and the community is alive and well.
Many of the talks on Sunday addressed ongoing qualitative research projects at various stages of development. Qualitative research has really come into its own as an “instrument-generating machine” in chemical education. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when instructors could blithely create survey instruments based on what they think they know, give those instruments to their students, run some numbers and call it a day. Our understanding of instrument development has advanced enormously in recent years—of course, that doesn’t mean the process has gotten any faster. In fact, quality instrument development is a long, arduous process best informed by the knowledge structures of the target student population. We can only learn how students think by talking to them!
Recent work on Lewis structures and enzyme-substrate interactions shows that qualitative research methods can shed significant light on student thought processes (good and bad). In fact, the Lewis structures work has already borne fruit in the form of an instrument to assess the implicit information that students pull from Lewis structures.
Of course, quantitative methods are still alive and kicking, too. At the symposium, Justin Carmel presented his work on the scientific reasoning abilities of non-majors in a one-off, elective chemistry course. For many of these students, this course will be the only exposure they have to science throughout their collegiate careers. Naturally, he reasons, the development of scientific reasoning skills in such a course is critical. Using an instrument developed by Lawson to measure scientific reasoning ability, he has tracked changes in students’ scientific reasoning abilities using a quasi-experimental, pre/post design with historical controls. Targeted interventions based on his findings are coming in the near future. Exciting stuff with some very interesting math going on in the background (factor analysis and structural equation modeling). The ACS Exams Institute at Iowa State University is also doing some fascinating quantitative work in an effort to develop more informative, useful ACS exams.
For all the flak the ACS gets, the national conference is invaluable for the chemical education community. Presenting at conferences has always been the one thing about grad school that’s invigorated me the most—even more so, I’ll dare to say, than exciting meetings with my advisor or conversations with colleagues or students. As hokey as it sounds, it’s just amazing to feel a sense of belonging and support from the community.