Developing Concepts in General Chemistry; Symposium on Chemistry MOOCs

Last week I attended the national ACS meeting in Denver. It was great to catch up with old friends and network with vendors and publishers, but the highlight for me was the symposium at which I presented: Online Courses and the Effect on the On-campus Classroom. Don’t feel like I’m tooting my own horn here, though—there were some amazing folks in the room. The symposium organizer said it best: preparing a MOOC can be a very lonely experience. Even though thousands of people might be watching your videos and hundreds (if you’re lucky) may be posting in course forums, the act of putting the course together is generally a solo venture. To some degree, all of us at the symposium were commiserating with one another.

John Hutchinson‘s talk (from Rice University) was one that stuck out to me. His approach to teaching general chemistry deserves to be spread to all corners of the globe. He emphasized that in addition to bringing education to those who want or need it, MOOCs can act as a vehicle for publishing teaching—not publishing research about teaching, or work in the domain of chemistry, but publishing teaching itself. Naturally, as someone who advocates for the publishing of teaching per se, he’s developed an excellent system for teaching general chemistry through Concept Development Studies.

The idea of the CDS approach is to reveal chemistry concepts in a mostly inductive manner through experimental results. Results of relevant experiments or observations are presented first (say, the gas laws), and a conceptual model is built around these results (say, the kinetic molecular theory of gases), mirroring the way scientific concepts are developed in practice. He argued that most general chemistry is taught backwards, using a deductive model: here are the concepts; now let’s use the concepts to solve deductive problems.

It’s delightful when hearing a speaker rekindles interest in something you haven’t thought about in forever. One of the earliest questions Hutchinson poses in his CDS text is: how do we know atoms exist? He displays an image of a single atom taken with an STM, but then throws a curve ball: the image doesn’t really help us much. After all—and here’s the kicker—to develop the technology to even build the microscope that made the image, we already had to know that atoms exist! The real question is, how do we know atoms exist given only macroscopic observations? That’s where the CDS approach comes in, as he uses mass data to inductively reveal the Laws of Definite and Multiple Proportions.

It’s easy for students and instructors both to take atoms and molecules for granted, but this can be problematic if it means stoichiometry turns into a simple game of dimensional analysis. I also think there’s a good argument to be made that grounding chemical models and theories in data makes them “stickier”—especially when the data runs counter to what we might expect based on a simple model.

Hutchinson has a MOOC through Coursera available here; from the URL, I’m pretty sure it was the first general chemistry MOOC on Coursera. Other online courses/content I’ve checked out since the symposium are Canelas’s Introduction to Chemistry, Sorensen et al.’s Science and Cooking, and John Suchocki’s Conceptual Chemistry. Beautiful production value in the last one, although it seems to be targeted at a lower level.