What can a student expect from my introductory chemistry course for non-majors?

Chuck doesn’t need to know chemistry. But you are not Chuck Norris.

Among other duties, I teach large lecture classes of introductory chemistry at a land grant research university. The course I have “earned” (by generating the fewest number of student complaints, I am sure) is the course for non-science majors. It serves as a general science core course in our curriculum. Every graduate of my university must take at least two science courses, one of which requires a lab. This list includes courses such as the ubiquitous Astronomy and Geology courses and the less common Environmental Science. The first two are well-known in the US system and strive to create an exposure to scientific method and are relatively low-stakes courses. The Environmental Science course awards enrolled students significant points towards their total grades for attendance. That also makes the course pretty low-stakes. These courses can be difficult to compete with for student enrollment who are not highly motivated to work hard and actually learn college level material – which is the case for many students fulfilling university general requirements. I am happy to say enrollment in my course is growing fast – so fast, a second large lecture had to be added this year. Continue reading


Does the content level preparation of high school teachers matter?

Yes, it does, at least for High School Chemistry.

[note: I recently added more data to this study and reworked my stats.  The average GPAs quoted in this study are barely changed and analysis shows that the average differences are significant to greater than 0.99 confidence level.  I expected I would need much more data to reach this conclusion but with differences in GPA that large, the effect is real.  I will continue to add data but I do not expect any changes, other than the differences will probably grow.]

The following graphic is a copy of a brochure that describes preliminary results of a study undertaken at UI in my Chem 101 – Introductory Chemistry course. The study tracked student performance of students who had previously taken a chemistry course in the state of Idaho while in High School. The state of Idaho has a majority of rural school districts. It’s challenging to find highly qualified teachers in STEM fields. In order to staff the positions in rural districts, Idaho has relatively light educational requirements in chemistry and physics. For example, the majority of Idaho teachers deemed “highly qualified” to teach chemistry have an endorsement in Physical Science or in Natural Science. These two endorsements value a broad teacher preparation over content specialization and the result is that a chemistry teacher can teach with as little as eight college semester hours of chemistry and in some cases, as few as four. The study described below was undertaken to discover the effect of this reduced teacher content preparation on student success in college.

Click on the image to increase the size to a more readable format. The brochure is meant to read in columns across the page. There are two individual pages to enlarge – top and bottom.

8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab

I found this on Sylvia Martinez’ Generation Yes blog – you can find it by following the link below.  The list of 8 ideas was created inside a learning center of a teen prison – The Maine Youth Center.  I’ve read about this project and it’s great to get the lessons in a short list like this.  There isn’t anything new here but it is a great collection of goals to implement in any situation but specifically in STEM courses.  The challenge for me is to do as many of these things as possible within the confines of a large lecture course with accompanying lab.  In fact, those are not the real limitations – those come from the constraints placed on the course by our current financial model for public higher education.  Most of these ideas are doable – given well-trained and prepared teachers working in labs, working in recitation sections, working in tutoring spaces and creating trusting, authentic relationships with learners.  Unfortunately, the trend is to make the lecture sections even larger and to use technology to try and make up for what is lost in terms of contact.

It’s worth looking at these 8 big ideas to determine if technology can make any of them achievable in ways better than reducing class size and increasing contact.  I don’t think so.  Next time a politician or administrator tells you that class size doesn’t matter  – suggest he or she reads the 8 big ideas.

8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab.

Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab
By Dr. Seymour Papert

The first big idea is learning by doing. We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting. We learn best of all when we use what we learn to make something we really want.

The second big idea is technology as building material. If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology: computers of all sorts including the computer-controlled Lego in our Lab.

The third big idea is hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.

The fourth big idea is learning to learn. Many students get the idea that “the only way to learn is by being taught.” This is what makes them fail in school and in life. Nobody can teach you everything you need to know. You have to take charge of your own learning.

The fifth big idea is taking time – the proper time for the job. Many students at school get used to being told every five minutes or every hour: do this, then do that, now do the next thing. If someone isn’t telling them what to do they get bored. Life is not like that. To do anything important you have to learn to manage time for yourself. This is the hardest lesson for many of our students.

The sixth big idea is the biggest of all: you can’t get it right without getting it wrong. Nothing important works the first time. The only way to get it right is to look carefully at what happened when it went wrong. To succeed you need the freedom to goof on the way.

The seventh big idea is do unto ourselves what we do unto our students. We are learning all the time. We have a lot of experience of other similar projects but each one is different. We do not have a pre-conceived idea of exactly how this will work out. We enjoy what we are doing but we expect it to be hard. We expect to take the time we need to get this right. Every difficulty we run into is an opportunity to learn. The best lesson we can give our students is to let them see us struggle to learn.

The eighth big idea is we are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing. So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else.

Download the PDF of these 8 big ideas and share widely!

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. Continue reading