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Summer School – Teaching Chem 101

One week until classes start in this second summer session.  I’m teaching in the second session this summer to help promote a new program at UI where we offer coursework that give students who normally enter in the Fall a running start.  The university selected a few courses that are meant to help entering students start “on schedule.”  For example, it’s expected that all students who take our Chem 111-112 sequence have had chemistry in high school.  Chem 111-112 is the course for science majors, so it moves quickly and treats subjects in more depth than a 101 course.  Chemistry is not a required course for high schoolers in Idaho so too many arrive without that preparation.  The timing of this course was chosen so that an entering student in that situation can take this course and then hit the ground running, ready for what we consider a normal schedule to be on track to graduate in four years with a degree in a science or engineering field.  Normally, most summer school classes begin in early May – the week after Spring Semester ends.  This is the first year for this running start program so it is not widely publicized yet and as a result, the enrollment for this course is lower than normal.

The lower enrollment is a plus in this case.  The lower student numbers will allow me to use a more interactive approach in class – even though I am already pretty interactive for what is typically a large lecture class with upwards of 250 students at a time.  That is the purpose of this blog: to track the successes and failures I encounter as I try to teach the course as I might if I were teaching in a smaller classroom – the way I think of it, teaching with the advantages one has in a high school classroom but with higher expectations and moving at a much faster pace.  That is actually the big challenge of this summer.  Can I cover the required material that allows the student to move on to the courses that call for Chem 101 as a prereq, while trying my best to make this a more interactive experience for the student.  I am afraid I will be forced to default to a more lecture driven course in time just to maintain the college pace but I am going to resist that to the best of my abilities.

Why is this an issue?  Someone not familiar with learning research might ask that question or something similar.  Research shows that in science in particular, students learn and retain more if they are forced to engage with the material rather than sit, listen, take notes and try to recall it later while working problems at a different time.  The long term learning outcome is measured to be better the more actively engaged a student is in class.  Briefly, the reason this is a big issue in science education is that students, no matter the age, are not really the “blank slates” we believe them to be.  The very fact we might believe this is an illustration of the situation.  Most of us have the preconceived notion that we are blank, ready to learn.  The same is true for most of science – we all have daily experiences in the physical world and those experiences have caused us to create models of understanding of how things work.  Most of the time those understandings are flawed.  Some times in minor ways that simply need cleaned up but often times is grand ways that can cause a difficulty in fully understanding what is known from science.  A more actively engaged student is one who is forced to challenge their understanding of a particular topic and that engaged student is more open to change their notions if they can see their understanding has failed them, or if they can see the limitations of their understanding.

So that is the research base for the way I hope to teach this summer course.  It’s also well-documented that most of us believe we have a deeper understanding of a particular topic than we really do and as the topics become more complex, the gap between what we think we know and what we really do know becomes wider.  This challenge to learning has actually become more pronounced with the availability of resources on the internet.  For example, a student may need to understand a particular concept in chemistry, say the kinetic theory.  The student does a google search and finds 10 instructional videos on the subject.  Modern students are very good at then briefly scanning the options and finding what seems the best.  In this case, best might mean shortest, or it might mean the flashiest, or it could mean any of many things depending on the situation.  The student then views the video, and might even answer a question correctly.  All of this is effort and the student is understandably led to believe he or she now knows the material.  So when a lecturer mentions the kinetic theory and proposes to spend an hour carefully explaining the material, a typical student feels she already knows this stuff and tends to tune out a bit.  She may neglect to invest careful time and attention doing the number of practice problems the course instructor knows is necessary to master the material at a level that will make the student successful in the course.  Twenty years of college teaching informs me this is a very common experience for college students studying chemistry.

That’s why it’s necessary to engage students in the practice of chemistry during lecture time.  As instructor, it’s my job to challenge any preconceived models or “intuition” and make sure it is correct.  If it is incorrect, I have to demonstrate it doesn’t work well.  I also have to show the student he may not be as proficient at the material as he thinks.  And then, only then, can we begin to build new models of the physical world that are effective and constructive.

Lots to do, so let’s get started!

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