Reflections on the NSDL by David Yaron

January 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm Leave a comment

Transforming Introductory Chemistry Courses

Fortunately, restricting focus to chemical education is not very limiting since, in my opinion, introductory chemistry courses need a complete overhaul. The traditional course teaches the wrong stuff, in the wrong way.

The “wrong stuff” comment is especially relevant for high school courses, where I believe the emphasis should be on scientific literacy. After all, why should almost every student be required to take a chemistry course? The most common response is that chemistry is necessary to understand many important issues in modern society. We did a thorough analysis of the way chemistry appears in sources such as the New York Times, Scientific American, and the Nobel Prize citations, as a concrete instance of what scientific literacy means in chemistry. [1] Our results show that the current course does almost nothing to advance scientific literacy. Based on these sources, we created a domain map which, if used as a basis for instruction, would give students a useful perspective of how chemists explain phenomena by generating and testing hypotheses; analyze substances to determine their chemical makeup, and synthesize new chemicals such as drugs or plastics. The current course covers fundamental tools and conceptual frameworks of chemistry without giving any hint as to how they are actually used to explain, analyze or synthesize anything. Even students destined to be future scientists and engineers would be better served by a course that conveyed the big-picture of the domain, with detailed information on the tools and frameworks embedded appropriately in the overall structure of the domain.

By “wrong way”, I mean that the current course focuses on teaching students how to carry out a set of tasks that are instantiated either as mathematical problem solving or as manipulation of graphical notations. Inquiry may be held up as a value in middle school education, but inquiry falls to the wayside as high school teachers struggle to cover the laundry list of topics that make up introductory chemistry. The end result is that students learn a large set of disconnected tasks without gaining insight into the actual chemistry concepts the tasks were intended to convey.

So if I could transform chemistry at a Google-like pace, I would immediately have all classrooms start teaching the “right” stuff in the “right” way. But such broad sweeping change is not possible, or even desirable, in educational systems. When it comes to social systems, evolution is better than revolution. The goal of our ChemCollective project is to provide educational resources that help promote this evolution. The need for improved instructional approaches is becoming increasingly well appreciated among chemical educators and so teaching in the “right” way is our current focus, via virtual labs and other interactive activities that help students go beyond mathematical procedures and develop a conceptual understanding of chemistry. Teaching the “right” stuff for scientific literacy will be a much more difficult evolution. Our current approach is to embed the traditional course content in scenarios that highlight how this knowledge is used to explain, analyze and synthesize. These scenarios include a murder mystery, arsenic poisoning in the groundwater of Bangladesh, ozone depletion, and human respiration.

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Entry filed under: NSDL Pathways. Tags: , , .

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Welcome to NSDL Reflections!

We are collecting the "reflections" on the collaborative development of the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). This site is a place for NSDL participants to “tell the story” of how they think NSDL was formed, grew and is continuing to grow. And for the community to discuss and learn from these reflections.

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