Course Transformation Work

Chemistry 110, Introductory ChemistryCHEM 110 is a service course for health sciences students. The goal for course transformation is to emphasize chemistry in the context of human health and downstream courses. Among other interventions, we have developed a multi-week lab experiment in which students chemically make soap and learn how it works at the chemical level to remove dirt and microorganisms. Initial results indicate that students understand the chemical process involved in soap-making but still struggle with how the product—soap—works hygienically. Additionally, this experiment, conducted at the end of the semester, appears to help students see the relevance of chemical concepts like pH, while the significance of other concepts or chemistry as a whole are unaffected. Common diagnostic tests and OTC drugs are currently being explored as early-semester labs to enhance relevance to health science students.

Chemistry 170, Chemistry for Chemical Sciences ICHEM 170 is a first semester general chemistry course for students in the chemical sciences. The goal for course transformation is to measure current student learning (see pop up figure below) and replace an anonymous, lecture-only learning environment with a collaborative and inclusive environment. In addition to interventions such as informal group work and student response systems, we have also introduced small projects, such as the microbiographic.” In this assignment, students generate a single-slide biography that is picture-heavy and text-light and that centers on the life and contributions of a chemist from an underrepresented community. Student work is then shared at the appropriate point in the course to motivate various topics. Measurements to capture the effects of such interventions are imminent.

The figure above shows how simple pre- and post-course assessments were used in CHEM 170 to identify how to direct future teaching efforts. For topics in blue, the pre-course data (long, light gray bars) suggest students come in with a reasonably strong background. Furthermore, comparing pre- and post-course data (long, dark gray bars) suggest that class time (as currently used) provides only a modest benefit (change data; blue bars). Thus, in an initial pass for course transformation, the time spent on these topics in blue might be shifted to topics in red. For topics in red, pre-course data (short or non-existent light gray bars) show that students come into the course with little to no background. Post-course data (short, dark gray bars) suggest that by the end of the course, students have made modest or no learning gains (change data; blue or red bars.) Similar targeting tools have been developed and deployed in other courses.

Chemistry 175, Chemistry for Chemical Sciences IICHEM 175 is the second semester general chemistry course for students in the chemical sciences and includes abstract and important topics, such as thermodynamics or acid-base reactions, which are difficult for students. To this end, course transformation efforts have focused on identifying prior knowledge issues, including misconceptions, and addressing them with active learning techniques, visualizations, and repeated exposure. A specific example is the introduction of an in-class activity in which students generate data that show the difference between a microstate and macrostate, and how these concepts lead to a correct definition of entropy. This steers students away from the inaccurate and vague “disorder” definition. Data indicate that active learning and follow-up led to a large initial increase in understanding of entropy, while repeated exposure led to an additional modest increase of accurate understanding concomitant with a decrease in students who knew but misunderstood these terms.

Faculty and Student Development Programs

Reading Group: To introduce faculty to the theory behind modern teaching and learning practice, a reading group was started. In the group’s initial offering, one chapter from Ambrose’s “How Learning Works” was discussed each month over a provided lunch, with particularl emphasis on the appearance of these principles in the faculty’s own courses. The group will have a different book each semester, with different goals in mind for the faculty.

Mini Grants: To enhance visualizations of molecular systems, collections of images of molecules (as chemists view them based on first-principles calculations) have been generated to support student understanding of chemical reactivity and other properties. Acid-base reactivity has been targeted initially. Visualization work will be extended to chemical simulations, which better capture the behavior of large collections of molecules over time and help explain the relationships between the microscopic and macroscopic world.

Working Group: In the summer of 2017, small working groups—pairs of faculty working together with the teaching postdoc—will be formed. In these groups, faculty will identify a problem area and use the principles they have learned to design and implement their own interventions with assistance and feedback from their peers. In its first offering, an “expert” faculty member will be drawn from the book club described above and paired with faculty having less pedagogical background, with the postdoc serving as a moderator.

Transformation Highlight

Modern understanding of the atomic world relies on myriad abstract ideas, many of which have no intuitive counterpart at the human scale. To this end, instructors typically rely on imagery and models.  While these have great value, they are often “cartoonish” and have the capacity to hinder physical understanding. We have started developing and curating images, movies, and models that are more inline with modern understanding of atoms, molecules, and the world at the nano-scale.

The example images above present students a chemist’s picture of several acids that differ in their reactivity and strength. Standard representations of molecules only indicate that one atom in each case is different. Good students usually understand that different atoms have different sizes and charge distributions. In the supplemental images, though, the details of these differences become readily apparent and reflect an accurate picture of relative sizes (sizes), charge distributions (colors), and bond lengths (widths). While still aiding students in solving problems, such images can also help them increase their understanding of the world at the molecular-level. Moreover, instructors can use these types of images to hold more meaningful discussions with students.

We are also developing 3D-printed models for lab and lecture use, as well as in-house movies of specific chemical reactions, both tailored to our courses and instructors. All visualizations materials will have associated instructor materials (clicker questions, CATs, exams questions, etc.) to facilitate their use.




Dr. Drew Vartia is a post-doctoral teaching fellow in the Chemistry Department at the University of Kansas.  His interests in course redesign include materials development and particularly aids in visualizing chemistry. Dr. Vartia earned his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Kansas in 2012. He can be contacted via email at to access the repository for Chemistry.