Introductory chemistry course receives "Best Enhanced Technology" award

Published April 16, 2015

Melanie Cooper, MSU Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education, and her colleagues received a "Best Enhanced Technology Award" for transforming CEM 141, MSU's introductory chemisty course for STEM majors.

The introductory chemistry course that is a requirement for Michigan State University (MSU) science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors is often a challenge and walking away with usable knowledge is sometimes daunting. However, with support from a National Science Foundation grant, Melanie Cooper, Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education in the MSU Department of Chemistry, and course instructors Amy Pollock, chemistry teaching specialist, and Lynmarie Posey, associate professor of chemistry, transformed the course, CEM 141, to focus on the big ideas of chemistry and how they are used.

The course with its new focus took top honors at the 2015 Michigan State University AT&T Faculty-Staff Instructional Technology Awards, which recognize the university’s best efforts at incorporating technology into enhancing teaching and learning. CEM 141 received the “Best Enhanced Technology” award, which was presented April 16 by MSU Information Technology Services.

“Our goal was to transform the introductory chemistry courses, based on the research on teaching and learning in general, and specifically in chemistry,” Cooper explained. “We wanted students to have a more active experience, where they have the opportunity to explore ideas, construct models and develop explanations. The technology we use in the course allows us the freedom to assign a wide range of activities for students, and to use what they write and draw to explore their thinking.”

Two key technologies used are beSocratic, a flexible, web-based system that recognizes and responds to free-form student input, and iClickers, user-friendly technology that enables instructors and students to interact. Students are assessed by three mid-term course exams and a final exam. Half of the questions on these exams are free response items, which ask students to construct explanations of phenomena by writing and drawing. IClickers are used for class participation, and homework is assigned in the beSocratic system.

Assignments in beSocratic help students make linkages between ideas in ways that traditional homework does not, allowing them to engage in deeper learning. Activities may include drawing (graphs, chemical structures, molecular level pictures), and writing explanations (often using drawings as support). Some types of drawings are recognized by the system (like graphs and simple representations), and students can be provided with contextual feedback and further questions.

The course instructors ask students to draw as a mechanism for illustrating what they understand—for   example, what sodium chloride molecules look like before they dissolve, while they dissolve, and after they have dissolved. This illustration of student knowledge allows for the instructors to identify student problems and help them develop more normative ideas.

BeSocratic also anonymously displays a grid containing other students’ responses. This allows for students to be asked to identify the positive and negative aspects of the responses, individually and as a whole. The instructor can also review responses and choose examples for class discussion.

“Throughout her career, Melanie Cooper has brought ingenuity and innovation to the classroom,” said R. James Kirkpatrick, College of Natural Science dean. “This chemistry course is a wonderful example of what can be done with a basic course to improve student learning. The college is very proud of Melanie and her team for this contribution.”

Responding to the growing use of online technologies for instruction at MSU, Information Technology Services started this annual awards program, which is funded by AT&T, in 2005. The program recognizes and encourages best practices in the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning. More information about all of the 2015 winners can be found at www.attawards.msu.edu .