Internet-based tools could bridge gap in chemistry education, reports Carnegie Mellon Univ.

03/25/04

High school textbooks fail to reflect real-world activities of chemists as reported in the popular press and as honored by Nobel Prizes, found a Carnegie Mellon University team. This educational pitfall could be remedied by Internet-based tools that challenge students to approach chemistry more like practicing scientists, according to David Yaron, associate professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon, who will present this report Thursday, April 1, at the 227th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, Calif. (CHED 1174, Orangewood 3).

Chemistry instructors may now have a way to bridge this learning gap thanks to a new Web site being launched on Monday, March 29, at the ACS meeting. Developed by Yaron and his group, the new Web site (www.chemcollective.org), will be a resource for introductory chemistry educators who are looking for techniques to help their students approach chemistry more like practicing scientists and see interesting real-world applications of key concepts.

"We discovered a misalignment between the types of activities chemistry textbooks focus on and the types of activities valued by the field of chemistry in practice," explained Yaron.

While textbooks present skills that students must master, such as memorizing chemical symbols and balancing equations to explain chemical phenomena, they fail to incorporate examples of the other key activities in which chemists engage: analyzing matter both qualitatively and quantitatively and synthesizing new substances.

The bulk of the new site centers on the Virtual Lab and the scenario-based learning activities developed by Yaron's group of experienced software engineers, undergraduate programmers, educational consultants and technical writers. Instructors can integrate the activities into existing introductory chemistry courses to supplement material offered by textbooks.

The Virtual Lab is a networked laboratory simulation in which students can select from hundreds of standard chemical reagents and combine them in any way they see fit. Instructors may use this environment in a variety of settings including student homework, group projects, computer lab activities and pre- and post-lab exercises to support varied approaches to chemical education.

Yaron received the 2003 MERLOT Classic and Editors' Choice Awards for Exemplary Online Learning Resources for the Virtual Lab. MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, makes these awards annually. The Editors' Choice Award is the highest honor given, recognizing the Virtual Lab as an exemplary model for all educational disciplines.

In addition to the Virtual Lab, scenario-based learning activities also will be available on ChemCollective.

"Embedding course concepts into scenarios is an excellent way to address the misalignment between chemistry instruction and the demands of chemical literacy while only requiring minor changes to current course structures," said Yaron.

For instance, "Mixed Reception" is a scenario-based activity that allows students to use concepts covered in the first few weeks of a high school course to solve a murder mystery. The activity combines 40 minutes of video (initial murder, suspect interviews, etc.) with four locations (such as the crime scene and the victim's apartment).

"Mixed Reception" is just one of many scenarios that will be available on the ChemCollective site.

"The goal of the ChemCollective is to build and support a community of chemical educators working to improve chemistry education through virtual labs and scenarios. Teachers can use the existing materials, give feedback on classroom use and author their own activities," said Yaron.

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