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!


#ChemCoach: My Story

Hey all! This is my contribution to See Arr Oh‘s ChemCoach project. Interested in what a chemical educator does all day? How I got here? Stalking me? Whatever it is, you’ve gotten this far; keep reading…

What would you say…ya do here?

I’m currently a graduate student studying organic chemistry and chemical education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I also work part time as a Graduate Affiliate at UIUC’s Center for Teaching Excellence, teach CHEM 332 (Elementary Organic Chemistry II) at UIUC, and run the website + create content for Organic Reactions. Most of my time is spent teaching and preparing materials for teaching…but then again, I have a very flexible definition of what counts as “teaching materials,” and my teaching and research practices often overlap (more on that later). I strongly believe that chemical education researchers should also be good teachers, and if they aren’t good teachers, they’re “doing it wrong.” You’d be surprised how many brilliant chemical education researchers fit this description…but that’s a tale for another time. My research involves the development and evaluation of educational technologies for organic chemistry.

Take us through a typical day…for you.

A “typical” day can vary for me, but here’s a broad overview. I teach at 8 am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which forces me to get to work by 7:30 on these mornings. After I teach, I generally deal with teaching responsibilities and preparing materials for teaching in the morning—it’s just a weird habit I’ve gotten into. In the early afternoon I’ll do CTE stuff: meet with TA’s, do class observations, prepare presentations, eat the world’s most delicious mints (seriously, they’re like crack for me), etc. The later afternoon and evening are usually reserved for research. My research responsibilities vary somewhat across projects, but I’ll go through alternating periods of creating content, writing code, collecting data, and carrying out data analysis. As I’m not a computer programmer by trade (although I always loved it), writing code probably takes me the most time…it’s a toss-up between that and drawing flippin’ structures in ChemDraw. Many of the products of my research are turned back over to students—to help them overcome difficulties, work more intimately with molecules, etc. There is one constant in my day: coffee.

What kind of schooling, training, or experience helped you get where you are?

I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a B.S. in Chemistry, and I can’t say enough about how my experiences there (good and bad) inform my teaching and research. During my time there, I fell in love with teaching, and jumped on an opportunity to serve as an undergraduate workshop leader for organic chemistry at UK. Advice for those who want to become chemical educators: start early. There’s a tired old fogey out there waiting for your youth and enthusiasm. Start reading the literature and critiquing the literature early, before you “get” everything—do not fear the chemical literature. It’s just vicious rumor, after all! Once at UIUC, I took a course on college teaching that opened the door to opportunities at the Center for Teaching Excellence, and I’ve been networking with other faculty and academic professionals on campus interested in teaching ever since. Again, you’d be surprised—there are more of us around than you think.

This seems like a good place to warn you that being a great chemical educator is not for the faint of heart. My committee is 75% “wet organic chemists,” and dealing with them is not an easy experience. You will be misunderstood, ridiculed, kicked when you’re down, and marginalized throughout your career—however, this is not an excuse to shy away from these experiences! On the contrary, value your interactions with practicing chemists. This is perhaps the most important thing graduate school has taught me. If you just want to crawl into a hole and teach, you’re part of the problem, not the solution!

How does chemistry inform your work?

Naturally, organic chemistry is central to what I teach. My exam problems come from the chemical literature, and I read journals daily. Chemistry is also central to the way I develop software: I think about how to “systematize” chemical principles so they can be encoded in computer programs. I consider how software can help students create and work with chemical structures more efficiently. I think about how machine-readable chemical data can expose common misconceptions and help students spot their weak areas. The list goes on, but thinking about the relationship between chemistry and technology fascinates me. The future is bright!

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career

So many stories…goodness. I think I hold the UIUC record for most hours spent on video on campus—I’ll even take the journalism department to task on that. I’ve recorded online videos for both non-major organic chemistry courses (approaching one thousand students per semester), so I get a lot of weird looks walking across campus, which I do almost every day. Once, a student ran up behind me on the quad and poked me on the shoulder…she had recognized me by solely by my voice! In the live classroom, I tend to be rather brash and vulgar. For example, what some would call “figuring out the bonds made and broken in a reaction,” I affectionately refer to as “cutting out the bullshit.” I also enjoy anthropomorphizing: past activities include “your hands are enantiotopic,” “surf’s up with pericyclic reactions,” and “the human orbital diagram.”

I blog here (naturally), and I keep my organometallic skills sharp over at The Organometallic Reader.

Chemical Education Roundup, 10-14-12

What’s new in the world of chemical education this fall? Evidence is mounting that the community is taking something of a breather and re-examining basic assumptions, which is always a good thing. @RethinkChemEd is a new account on Twitter that I would encourage readers to check out. Ten Dichotomies We Live By is a must-read, which examines the dichotomies at the root of most chemical educators’ thinking and how they influence research and teaching. Somewhat off the beaten path, but still fundamental, a recent J. Res. Sci. Teach. article examines the nature of scientific argumentation in the classroom. The authors here recognized the great importance of scientific argumentation in the classroom, but identified several barriers to the application of scientific argumentation by students. Inquiry approaches to the teaching laboratory come to mind, but even these face challenges, as a recent Int. J. Sci. Teach. article suggests.

In recent years, a number of groups have taken up very long-term, mixed-methods studies that use qualitative research approaches to establish a foundation for subsequent quantitative work. The absolute master of this approach is, in my opinion, Bretz, who has notably addressed acid-base reactions and enzyme-substrate interactions using qualitative-then-quantitative work. The primary goal here is to identify alternative conceptions via interviews with students, then to rapidly nip them in the bud in subsequent semesters using survey instruments validated by the initial qualitative work. Bretz and McClary’s recent work on acid-base chemistry is a masterpiece in this field—definitely worth a look!

Educational technology research marches on. I had originally planned on an entire post on social media in education, but instead, I’ll just point you to a nice review of research on microblogging in education published earlier this year in Brit. J. Educ. Technol.—heck, the entire issue is an awesome look at social media in the classroom. Exciting news this month for chemists interested in ed tech: Jmol has been ported to Javascript! Check out the demo of “JSmol” here. Without too much comment I have to say that JSmol is a technological dream for chemical educators, since it opens the door to interactive models on all manner of portable devices.

Other random highlights: oral examinations in the undergraduate organic chemistry curriculum (!?) piloted by Mark Lautens (!?) at the University of Toronto; William Wulf’s Responsible Citizenship in a Technological Democracy course (mentioned in a letter to Science); a closer look at virtual chemistry laboratories in Res. Sci. Educ.; and an article on FoldIt, one of my favorite educational time-wasters.

Why Study Organic Chemistry?

I wrote this a while back to kick off a series of notes for an organic chemistry refresher course for secondary school teachers. It seemed appropriate to post in light of the recent war on chemophobia taking place on the Internet. We are a small band of fighters, but we will prevail! —mevans

I think it’s essential for every professor of organic chemistry to conceive a good response to the title question. In today’s age of student-centered learning and practical education for concrete skills, a “good” answer should both convince students that the subject is valuable and speak to its more general worth to society. In this short introductory section, I describe my reasons why organic chemistry is worth studying, and what dedicated students of the subject can expect to gain from it.

I’ll begin with a focus on the practical value of organic chemistry to society. Organic compounds permeate our daily lives in an unfathomable number of ways. Organic compounds play an essential role in such diverse fields as genetics, materials science, nutrition, kinesiology and consumer products development. Each of these fields depends one way or another on our ability to make organic compounds (naturally or otherwise), the knowledge of which rests on an understanding of the fundamentals of structure and reactivity. It is becoming clearer daily that many of the biological processes that sustain human life can be viewed in the light of the elementary steps of organic chemistry. For many applications, such as light-emitting diodes and solar cells, we are only just beginning to realize the potential of organic compounds. As the scope and importance of organic chemistry continue to grow, our need to study it increases accordingly. Continue reading →

ACS San Diego: Meeting Notes + More

ACS San Diego: Meeting Notes + MoreI’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 educationVery 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.  Continue reading →

Deslauriers, Schelew, and Wieman vs. “Hard Science”

Science education is the angsty teenager of the scientific research field. Assaulted on all sides with strict demands from the “patriarchal” hard sciences, education research holds its ground by echoing cries of “you don’t understand me!” and basing its claims on past literature, much of which was probably subject to the same criticisms that present-day educational research is! Where does the vicious cycle end?

A little background first—as regular readers of my blog may be vaguely aware (assuming these “readers” exist), Science has begun to include science education studies in its pages lately. This is a very good thing. Not only does it put important research in the spotlight, it also attracts science educators to the journal, and an army of science educators who read Science is much better than one that does not! A recent educational research paper by Deslauriers, Schelew, and Wieman published in the pages of Science made some sweeping claims about improved learning in a large physics class thanks to a course intervention based on the idea of “deliberate practice.” Exam scores and attendance were both higher in the section that used deliberate practice; the “old school” section’s scores and attendance were lower. The sections were “matched” using several metrics, including the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment and Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey. Matched sections, differing only in the presence or absence of deliberate practice…everything seems peachy, right?

Not according to Derting et al. and Torgerson, who both wrote letters to Science criticizing the study. The bulk of Torgerson’s argument is that the study is not properly controlled, and does not take into account teacher effects (maybe the control group teacher just sucks in general, in addition to using “bad, old school” methods), selection bias, whether students knew they were being treated differently, etc. Derting et al. echo many of these points. One of their more intriguing ideas in common is that, really, the original study is the equivalent of a “single data point,” or a clinical trial involving a single placebo patient and a single treatment patient. Replication, echo the throngs of hard scientists, is needed.

The original authors responded by supplying evidence that their experimental design was good enough to be generalized. Randomized, hyper-controlled trials are not, they claim, necessary in collegiate science courses. Teacher personalities tend to not affect the amount of learning that occurs in collegiate courses (?!). Finally, they raise the point that replications of their experiment may introduce ethical issues, as investigators should expect to replicate their result, which would involve putting the control group at an intrinsic disadvantage.

Where to fall on this debate? It’s tough for me to decide. Both sides advance good arguments. Theoretical ideas and educational psychology research do support the practices used by the experimental section from the original paper. It would have been very bad if the authors’ results had not supported this existing literature, and what they did was almost certainly good from an educational perspective. However, like a sparrow sitting on a giant’s shoulder, the work does little to advance the field of physics education. There are some very subtle issues at play in the classroom, not all of which can be addressed by sweeping labels like “deliberate practice” and even “active learning.” Practical ideas that real educators can take away are hard to find in the paper, and that lowers its value. It’s a shame, because one can tell that their hearts are in it, but the long-term usefulness of the work just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny! The most valuable literature in education (at least to me) has always been the stuff with the most practical value. This paper will at best fade away and be remembered as little more than a blip on the radar—and at worst have a negative effect on the practicing scientist’s view of education research.

Student Development as a Result of Science Courses

The most recent issue of Science contains an excellent editorial by David Asai on measuring student development through science education. He hits the nail on the head by identifying the key processes that students should be able to engage in after successfully completing an experience in science education. To some, the quip that “students of science should be able to apply the scientific method” may seem like a tautology, but it’s something educators must constantly remind themselves. Why? Because the body of content under the umbrella of “science” is so massive now that it’s easier than ever to fall into a rut of teaching to memorization. Quality not quantity, right?!

Anyway, back to Dr. Asai’s key competencies (lifted verbatim from Science 2011, 332 (6032), 895):

  • Formulate a hypothesis
  • Design a meaningful experiment
  • Deal with uncertainty
  • Critically evaluate evidence
  • Engage in effective discourse

In other words, “do the scientific method”! Not quite a tautology when you see it broken up this way, right? What fascinates me is this question:

  • How do we assess and look for these competencies meaningfully?

Teaching a lecture course of 200+, I can only dream of doing this on a formative basis. But the possibilities are endless if the manpower is there! The laboratory environment in particular is an interesting battle ground for this sort of assessment. For instance, in an advanced organic chemistry lab course I took in undergrad, we were given a set of reactants and reaction conditions and told “good luck have fun!” with only a lecture or two on the reaction for that experiment. Side products were reasonable and to be expected, so critical analysis was essential. We were judged on how well we evaluated evidence and established reasonable conclusions—not our yield of some “cookie cutter” product. This is the way science education should be!