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.

Chemical Education Roundup, 4-23-13

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” This sentiment nicely sums up the state of chemical education right now. While sequestration threatens the largest sources of funding for chemical education researchers in the US, the literature has been on fire in the past few weeks with some intriguing studies. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get right into it!

First, the bad news. STEM education takes a painful hit in the President’s budget for FY 2014.

The single biggest consolidation proposed this year is in the area of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, where the Administration is proposing a bold restructuring of STEM education programs—consolidating 90 programs and realigning ongoing STEM education activities to improve the delivery, impact, and visibility of these efforts.

Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric–this is almost certainly bad news for American chem ed researchers. It will be interesting to see how existing NSF-funded programs respond to these changes, but it’s almost certain to hurt the proliferation of new programs. It’s worth noting also that this is only a proposed budget, but if President Obama is throwing STEM education under the bus, I don’t see Congress fighting back.

Enough with the bad news! The bright side is that a lot of interesting research is happening these days. I’ve been digging into the general chemistry literature lately for professional reasons, and a very recent study out of Middle Tennessee State University caught my eye. The research addressed student conceptions of gases, focusing on a question that asks about the effects of a temperature change on the particulate nature of helium gas (originally studied by Nurrenben and Pickering). The conclusion of the research is typical: scaffolding and schema-activating designs for assessments improve performance on conceptual problems relative to more vague designs, but the authors were unable to track down the exact source of the performance boost (despite a few controls).

cartoon-sledge-hammer-guyOne clue is provided by another recent study: that of Behmke and Atwood on the implementation of problems sensitive to cognitive load theory  in an electronic homework system. The authors converted single, multi-step problems into sequences of related problems that “fade” from nearly complete when given to fully incomplete. Using an analytical approach based on item response theory, the authors observed that students exposed to the “statically fading” questions were very likely to perform better on subsequent related problems. The act of breaking a multi-step problem down and exposing its process over multiple problems can improve performance.

Jennifer Lewis and colleagues at USF have written a very important summary of the state of the art in psychometric measurement for chemistry education research. In addition to pointing out the typical methods researchers use to argue for the validity and reliability of survey results, Lewis et al. note that chemistry education research is becoming more interdisciplinary as evidence mounts for theoretical overlap between sub-fields of science education. They also draw attention to the need for qualitative research to complement quantitative efforts (see the MTSU study for a nice recent example of this idea). A nice read right after Lewis’s review is Barbera’s recent psychometric analysis of the Chemical Concepts Inventory.

In other news: a simple approach to assessing general chemistry laboratories; an investigation of apprenticeship in research groups; differential item functioning in science assessments; the evolution of online video in an organic chemistry course; teaching gas laws to blind students. Mouse over the links for full article titles!

Chemical Education Roundup, 12-11-12

As the weather has turned cold (or not), what’s new in the chemical education world? A number of interesting articles have been published this fall. Bruce Albert’s editorial in Science about the damaging effects of shallow learning in science education is a good place to start—using a personal anecdote about his grandson’s biology textbook,  Alberts laments the “breadth not depth” approach to content you see across all levels of science education.

Close to my own heart, Marc Loudon and Laurie Parker have published an interesting study of online homework in an organic chemistry course, concluding that studying textbook problems in addition to solving online homework problems provided no benefits to learning versus solving online homework problems alone. From their abstract: “We speculate that this is because the immediate feedback given by the online system more effectively reinforces the topics.” In other educational technology news, Churchill has written recently about design considerations for learning objects that promote exploration and learning of concepts, conceptual model learning objects. Using data from several different studies, he recommends a minimalist design paradigm: design for a small screen, use a single font, avoid audio/video unless they’re the only option, don’t use too many different colors, etc. Structurally, he advocates the logical use of frames to divide up screen space. Another theoretical study using a “Nature of Technology” approach provides design pointers based on philosophical and cultural ideas.

MOOCs continue to dominate the “popular education” scene, although formal studies on MOOCs haven’t yet emerged—look for that to change in the next six months.

In science writing and inquiry news, a study of argumentation in general chemistry laboratory reports has recently been published. Students used the Science Writing Heuristic approach, and the researchers deconstructed students’ arguments to identify their most important elements for performance. Scientific inquiry itself came under the data-mining microscope in a recent Int. J. Sci. Educ. article, which used cluster analysis to examine types of scientific inquiry in a collection of scientific studies.

Other highlights: a fascinating look at physics teachers’ emotions while implementing inquiry-based activities, a learning progression for energy, the importance of speaking up for learning in an active learning classroom, and an item-reponse-theoretical treatment of an international science/math skills assessment.

The Walking Dead? Organic Chemistry Lectures Online

AMC’s The Walking Dead is one of my favorite shows on television these days. On top of excellent acting and a compelling storyline, the show is legendary for its special effects, which hold nothing back in terms of violence and gore. Zombies have taken over the world, and the show follows a small group of human survivors as they cling to life in and around Atlanta. How exactly did a bunch of mindless, flesh-eating, slow-walking undead best the United States military, Interpol, nuclear bombs, etc.? Good question…

Here’s a (somewhat) related question, about a situation just as ugly: how could a subject as compelling as organic chemistry be given as dull a treatment as those currently available on iTunes U? The linked lectures are by J. Michael McBride at Yale, and are (long story short) the “best” organic chemistry lectures available on that platform. The problem? They’re a poster child of God-awful teaching. Where do I even begin…?

More compelling: The Walking Dead or organic chemistry lectures online?

More compelling: zombies from The Walking Dead or organic chemistry lectures online?

Let me start by calmly stating that I have no problem with the content that McBride covers, per se. His content is fine, and cuts a nice swath across a variety of topics. If the student buys in, she’ll leave McBride’s course with a solid awareness of important results and thought processes in many areas of organic chemistry. What he teaches is largely irrelevant, but I take enormous issue with how he teaches.

I probably don’t have to tell this audience that good teaching should reflect how people learn, not how a discipline is structured—or even how knowledge is structured in a professor’s mind. Good teaching must include live practice and feedback, right at the moment of learning, in the classroom. Good teaching must feature concrete, attainable learning goals. Good teaching should be a conversation, not an oration. If it must be an oration, the structure of good teaching should invite the student to consider a problem or challenge her current worldview. McBride’s lectures—and most other organic chemistry lectures I’ve seen online—do none of this. He assumes, erroneously, that his responsibility is simply to say words in class. Even so, his words don’t challenge, confront, or question…his videos are as good as Reusch’s Virtual Textbook of Organic Chemistry (which, by the way, is a phenomenal resource). One might argue that the videos are even worse than text, insofar as they aren’t searchable and may be a waste of the student’s time. In spite of its flaws, Khan’s organic chemistry series does a better job of presenting compelling problems and asking the student to consider them than McBride’s series. That the community of organic chemical educators would relegate good teaching to the likes of Salman Khan is downright embarrassing. That McBride actually taught in a live classroom at Yale is also disheartening!

MOOCs have captured the world’s attention in recent months, which means that online educational content is seeing more scrutiny lately than it usually gets. Some educators have been optimistic about the situation, others cynical. Me? I’m still on the fence, but I welcome the opportunity to have my teaching put under the microscope. In spite of what Bill Gates says, chemistry content online is not what it should be, and pales in comparison to comparable content in…political philosophy, let’s say. Reusch’s VTOC has entered its teen years with no comparable interactive replacement. Opportunities to practice organic chemistry and learn interactively are very few and far between right now. Our situation is frustrating, but inspiring to the extent that we have a lot of room to grow.

Perhaps I’m over-reacting…I have a tendency to do that. Still, I would rather be chemical education’s harshest critic than hear the same legitimate criticisms from outside the field. Would love to hear your thoughts about chemical education’s relation to the MOOC craze, and how you think we’re doing. Thanks for reading!