The number of scientific advancements in the last 50 years has been astounding. From manned space exploration to the discovery of ozone depletion to the mapping of the human genome, there is no denying the impact scientific discovery has had on our world—and the next 50 years promise to be just as exciting. It is sometimes easy to forget that the greatest scientific minds of today were once undergraduate students themselves, tinkering away in the lab and cramming for exams while pursuing their degrees. That first university chemistry class, it turns out, is quite often the first step to our greatest scientific accomplishments.
As science advances, so does the way we teach it. Along with the more publicized discoveries, there have also been considerable advancements in the field of Chemical Education. In the last 50 years, we have gained a better understanding of how students learn and possess better tools with which to teach. Technology and molecular-level visualization have augmented or even replaced traditional lecture courses and collaborative learning has risen from niche practice to an expected standard. This is truly not your parents’ chemistry class. Truth be told, it’s not even the way I learned chemistry! The last few years at ASU have seen a dramatic paradigm shift in the way undergraduate students learn chemistry. The focus has moved away from traditional lectures and labs into active learning environments that are much more effective tools for student learning.
The traditional college chemistry course consists of a lecture supplemented by “cookbook” laboratories. In these labs, students are typically asked to follow a series of steps to arrive at a predetermined conclusion with grades assigned according to how close they are to the correct answer. Unfortunately, this does little to encourage problem-solving skills, critical thinking, conceptual understanding, and long-term retention of key concepts. In the 1990’s Jim Birk and Rich Bauer, then coordinators of our General Chemistry program, decided to do something about it by implementing an Inquiry-based laboratory program. You had only to look at the names of the assignments to see that something was different: “How Hot is the Water?” “How Can the Waste be Made Useful?” “What are the Structures of Some Alloys?” The names of all these activities were Questions, indicative of their difference from other labs. In these Inquiry labs, students were asked to answer an underlying question and then work as a group to determine a procedure—rather than have the procedure spelled out for them step by step. Teaching assistants acted as facilitators rather than instructors, encouraging students to figure things out on their own—just like they would be asked to do in an actual research or industry job. How does the saying go? “Teach a man to fish…”
Inquiry labs have been in place in our CHM 101, 113, 114, and 116 curricula ever since and have proven to be quite successful. Student retention has risen dramatically, as has performance on exams. Students are also more likely to remember what they’ve learned long after they leave the course. With the advent of Inquiry learning in the lab, it was natural for us to look for ways to incorporate active learning in the other course components as well. Today, many of our CHM 101, 113, 114, and 116 instructors encourage peer discussion and group work in lecture. Lab partners are asked to sit together in the large lecture portions of the course, encouraging spillover of collaboration from lab to lecture, and breaking up monotony by keeping students involved.
In 2007, the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) and the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) called upon interested faculty to learn about successful models of course redesign. Although our General Chemistry program was strong, many of us realized that there were still opportunities for improvement. Thus, a new General Chemistry Learner-Centered Education (LCE) team was formed. Janet Bond-Robinson, Ron Briggs, and Pam Marks were joined by Rich Bauer (ASU Downtown) and Holly Huffman (ASU Polytechnic) in an effort to improve the quality of our learning environments while supporting higher enrollment and better preparing our teaching assistants. Ideally, this effort would also result in a cost savings to the University. After discussions for the better part of two years, multiple workshops, and collaboration with multiple faculty, the idea of a new Recitation section was born, with the promise to change the way we teach chemistry to over 5,000 students each year. This, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. What began with a modest $100,000 grant, turned into something much bigger.
The scope of what we were trying to do piqued the interest of the University Architects Office (UAO) and furniture/technology mavens, Steelcase and Polyvision—both who pledged considerable support and funding to the effort of a new Chemistry Collaborative Learning Center (CCLC) housed on the first floor of the H-wing in the Physical Sciences Building. Walk into this $650,000 room and you’ll be hard-pressed to mistake it for a traditional classroom. By design, the tables are round, allowing students to see and talk with each other. The room is round too, so there is no place for instructors to stand in front and lecture. Instead, they are immersed in the learning environment along with their students, constantly navigating the room in order to facilitate learning rather than lecture. What really makes the room special is the technology. Equipped with 36 tablet PCs, six projectors, a plasma screen, and 12 projection screens, the CCLC is an immersive learning environment that is unequaled in scope. The crown jewel of this technology is the Polyvision Thunder system. Originally designed to support business collaboration between multiple locations, the system is being used in our General Chemistry courses to expand collaboration of students from a single table to the entire room, and (eventually) to other campuses and even student homes.
The activities performed in this room are unique too—results of tireless work over the summer by our core General Chemistry faculty. Walk into the CCLC, and you’re likely to see a student “playing” with Legos, building a spectroscope out of a cardboard box and a DVD, or making S’mores. These activities were designed with exploration in mind and the goal of connecting common everyday experiences with more abstract chemical concepts. There is also an active push to link the macroscopic world to the microscopic to help students visualize what is happening on the molecular level. Chemistry has such a stigma associated with it that students don’t seem to realize how dynamic, entertaining, and engaging the subject truly is. As such, we sometimes have to fool our students into learning—which of course is perfectly acceptable! Students that enjoy what they are doing and feel like they understand are much more likely to complete a course and pursue more advanced courses in the discipline, resulting in better retention, better comprehension, and a larger group of trained scientists to lead the next generation of great discoveries.
What a perfect complement to President Crow’s vision of the New American University.
(*The Chemistry LCE team has grown since its inception, with significant contributions from Jim Allen, Gary Cabirac, E-Jay Christopher, Frank Davis, Brandon Forrest, Jim Klemazewski, Gary Mansour, Heide McIlwraith, Chris Pruis, Allan Scruggs, Shelly Seerley, and others.)
Ron Briggs, Ph.D.,
Coordinator of General Chemistry