This week I’m reading… Changing STEM education

Summer is a great time for Good Intentions and Forward Planning… with that in mind I’ve been reading about what way we teach chemistry, how we know it’s not the best approach, and what might be done to change it.

Is changing the curriculum enough?

Bodner (1992) opens his discussion on reform in chemistry education writes that “recent concern”, way back in 1992, is not unique. He states that there are repeated cycles of concern about science education over the 20th century, followed by long periods of complacency. Scientists and educators usually respond in three ways:

  1. restructure the curriculum,
  2. attract more young people to science,
  3. try to change science teaching at primary and secondary level.

However, Bodner proposes that the problem is not in attracting people to science at the early stages, but keeping them on when they reach university, and that we at third level have much to learn with from our colleagues in primary and secondary level. Instead of changing the curriculum (the topics taught), his focus is on changing the way the curriculum is taught. In an era when textbooks (and one presumes now, the internet) have all the information one wants, the information dissemination component of a lecture is redundant. Bodner makes a case that students can perform quite well on a question involving equilibrium without understanding its relationship to other concepts taught in the same course, instead advocating an active learning classroom centred around discussion and explanation; dialogue between lecturers and student. He even offers a PhD thesis to back up his argument (A paper, with a great title, derived from this is here: PDF).

Are we there yet?

One of the frustrations I’m sure many who have been around the block a few times feel is the pace of change is so slow (read: glacial). 18 years after Bodner’s paper, Talanquer and Pollard (2010) criticize the chemistry curriculum at universities as “fact-based and encyclopedic, built upon a collection of isolated topics… detached from the practices, ways of thinking, and applications of both chemistry research and chemistry education research in the 21st century.” Their paper in CERP presents an argument for teaching “how we think instead of what we know”.

They describe their Chemistry XXI curriculum, which presents an introductory chemistry curriculum in eight units, each titled by a question. For example, Unit 1 is “How do we distinguish substances?”, consisting of four modules (1 to 2 weeks of work): “searching for differences, modelling matter, comparing masses, determining composition.” The chemical concepts mapping onto these include the particulate model of matter, mole and molar mass, and elemental composition.

Talanquer CERP 2010 imageAssessment of this approach is by a variety of means, including small group in-class activities. An example is provided for a component on physical and electronic properties of metals and non-metals; students are asked to design an LED, justifying their choices. I think this fits nicely into the discursive ideas Bodner mentions. Summative assessment is based on answering questions in a context-based scenario – picture shown.

In what is a very valuable addition to this discussion, learning progression levels are included, allowing student understanding of concepts and ideas, so that their progressive development can be monitored. It’s a paper that’s worth serious consideration and deserves more widespread awareness.

Keep on Truckin’

Finally in our trio is Martin Goedhart’s chapter in the recently published book Chemistry Education. Echoing the basis provided by Talanquer and Pollard, he argues that the traditional disciplines of analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, and biochemistry were reflective of what chemists were doing in research and practice. However, the interdisciplinary nature of our subject demands new divisions; Goedhart proposes three competency areas synthesis, analysis, and modelling. For example in analysis, the overall aim is “acquiring information about the composition and structure of substances and mixtures”. The key competencies are “sampling, using instruments, data interpretation”, with knowledge areas including instruments, methods and techniques, sample prep, etc. As an example of how the approach differs, he states that students should be able to select appropriate techniques for their analysis; our current emphasis is on the catalogue of facts on how each technique works. I think this echoes Talanquer’s point about shifting the emphasis on from what we know to how we think.

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#Eurovariety13 Day 1 Report

Action-packed day on context-based chemistry, using technology for innovative assessment, and some reconsideration of problem-based learning…

Rainer Glaser (University of Missouri) spoke about the need to include writing and the concept of relating chemistry in the everyday world. Discussion and understanding about how to structure an argument and considering the role and value of science in society can be facilitated through peer-review process. He developed Chemistry is in the news module for lower level undergraduate students (Intl J Sci Educ, 2005, 9, 1083-1098) where students read news content and answer chemistry and more general questions about the report. Assessment protocols are details in J Chem Ed, 2006, 83, 662-667.  It was found that CIITN created an interest in organic chemistry and a better understanding of society. In the writing activity, two preliminary activities and a peer-review process is included to structure students approach to the activity Peer review process discussed in his article Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 2009, 34, 69-81.  A similar approach on scientific writing was completed with higher level students, whereby students would write a peer review on a topic given in a lecture. Other references by this speaker include  Science Communication for All, Chemistry International, 2003, 25, 3-6 and Teaching Dissent and Persuasion, Educational Research and Reviews, 2006, 1, 115-120.

Madeline Schultz (Queensland University of Technology) spoke on the development of interventions to improve conceptual understanding. The aim was that given that we know the nature of many misconceptions among our early-year students, what can we do about it? Students are given a chemistry concept questionnaire, using multiple questions on the same topic. Concept topics were on phase change, heat and energy, chemical solutions, aqueous solutions, and equilibrium. Students are emailed their score from the concept inventory – marks were 3 marks for correct answer, 2 for minor flaw down to zero for wrong. Subsequently found that if students saw they were doing OK, they lost motivation t do subsequent activities, even if they had gains to make. Also investigated whether visual or verbal representations of the answers and found that students without prior chemistry did better with visual representations (this is being studied more at present). Having received their email feedback, there is a subsequent series of activities for them to work through, based on the topics that they had difficulty with. Includes text, animations and videos (see examples at YouTube VISCHEM), as well as external sites (e.g. Molecular Workbench).

Mike Casey (University College Dublin) spoke about using closed well-structured questions in problem-based learning.  PBL typically involves open-ended, “real-world problems”. PBL adoption in chemistry is patchy, most often used in introductory level courses, lab courses, and analytical chemistry. There are very few applications in advanced level courses. Problems with open-ended problems include that they take more time (all learning objectives may not be achieved), are difficult to devise, along with some philosophical concerns. A scheme for a 12 week module on stereochemistry and mechanism (Year 3) was outlined. The problems are worked on over a two week cycle. Problems are closed – have a definite solution pathway , but it is a complex problem for students at this level, addresses authentic disciplinary learning objectives, while the problem-solving approach used addresses some generic PBL learning objectives. A typical chemistry problem can be “recast” by placing students in a position of being for example, a medicinal chemist looking for a particular drug isomer (forgive my organic chemistry). This adds some authenticity to the problem. It is possible to add on additional more open-ended problems, which may have multiple solution pathways.

Charles Harrison (University of Southampton) spoke about blended learning and self-assessment to support teaching in organic chemistry. Access statistics show that students are using video resources made to support lectures at all times of the day, but what are they doing? Is it passive? The project involved turning worked example videos into self-assessment exercises. Students completed an exercise after the videos were made available – they showed that they had done it, but it was not marked by academics. Instead, students used the marking scheme provided on the videos to mark their work. This meant that they were actively engaging with the materials, as determined by (a lot of) student feedback. Students who completed the exercise showed a net gain in exam performance of 6%. Those who didn’t did not improve. A similar project over the summer break demonstrated similar results.

Tim O’Sullivan (University College Cork) on developing an online system for students to practice drawing organic molecules, which would allow machine correcting for rapid feedback. Using a Marvin Sketch applet in Blackboard or Moodle, students drew their structure, and generated a SMILES output (automatically by Marvin Sketch) which they pasted into their VLE quiz question (using fill in the blank word option). Marvin Sketch is a Java applet so does not need to be installed on PCs. Students were given a 1-hour training session at the start of the year on the process of submitting questions. Some pitfalls in using the system were highlighted – e.g. implicit and explicit hydrogens have different SMILES codes, so you need to check option in Marvin Sketch to turn off explicit hydrogens. Some more information at

Anne O’Dwyer (University of Limerick) on the issues around teaching organic chemistry at second level.  A survey of 276 second level pupils, found that the majority said organic chemistry was difficult to learn. This therefore carries on to third level. Strategy is to teach organic chemistry with relevance to everyday life up-front, rather than the traditional method of applications at the end, after all of the core material has been taught. Similar projects include Salters, Chemie in Kontext. An “Organic Chemistry in Action” Teacher and Pupil workbook has been developed. An aspect further discussed was the facilitation of cognitive development. The OCiA delivery involves using a lot of models and illustrations. In terms of practical work, pre-lab work involves mapping molecules being used in the lab to an organic chemistry set-up, as well as using models to show, for example what changes are occurring structurally during oxidation and reduction. Further materials have been developed as resources to teach postgraduate lab demonstrators.

John J Keating (University College Cork) spoke about teaching chemistry through discipline eyes – i.e. teaching chemistry to pharmacy students, need to keep in mind professional requirements and national/EU regulatory bodies. One option is to contextualise the chemistry being taught is a good resource) Can also use media articles, for examples painkillers reported as “dangerous”, etc). Drug SPCs (supplementary protection certificates) also give a lot of information about drugs that can provide a lot of chemistry contexts and questions.

David McGarvey (Keele University) finished the day with the second plenary on the theme of enhancing the student experience through assessment. The motivation for many changes was that the chemistry department was undergoing a curriculum review. The university has a list of 10 graduate attributes ( which informed the curriculum design review. (Limerick’s is at here). It is contested whether academic staff designing programmes are aware of such attributes (SC Barrie, Higher Education (2006), 51, 215-241). Some features of the curriculum review included assessment guidelines and marking criteria, pre-lab work, safety in the lab, assessment of practical skills, acting on feedback, self and peer assessment, etc. All feedback for a student was to be located in individual folders in a VLE. Assessment principles are designed in line with TESTA assessment principles (

The new first year curriculum separated out theory modules from practical modules. It included a variety of different assessments, class tests, problem sheets, lab diaries, and elements such as information retrieval skills (10%, module 1) and presentation (15%, module 2) in the theory module, and laboratory report sections in a Practical and Professional Skills.  Three-hour exams are worth 60% of the theory module, and there is no choice in questions. There was a 40% threshold on all elements (except class tests).

Lab report sections are used in semester 1. Students write separate sections of a lab report (but for different practicals). Sections are Introduction, Experimental, Results and Discussion, and Conclusion. Assessment criteria are available for each section. In the first lab session, students complete the lab and are given a model report to communicate the structure standards expected.  This is more engaging than the assessment criteria. Students discuss strengths and limitations of reports, and then using assessment criteria, students mark the reports. The aim is to prompt engagement with the assessment criteria. Similar strategy is proposed in Phil Race’s HEA document on assessment (2009). Lab work is supported by a series of how-to screencasts on software usage, using Web of Science, drawing graphs and tables, etc. In semester 2, a full lab report is required – students bring what they have learned in Semester 1 (students are requested to review their semester 1 feedback). Dave also talked about audio feedback, which you can read about here (it’s been a long day!)

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A Guide for Students on Preparing Posters in Chemistry

A student guide on Preparing a student poster in chemistry and a video on how to prepare student posters in chemistry. We have found posters a great way to engage students in a topic relevant to their degree specialism.
CLick on HD for higher quality…

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Paper Conservation Chemistry in our Curriculum


My latest article in Education in Chemistry is on paper conservation. The article was inspired by hearing and reading about the great conservation work that goes on at the National Library of Ireland.

I would also like to initiate a conversation with anyone interested in developing/collating material for including paper chemistry and conservation in the curriculum.

The article also made the cover – click on the image to go to it. A PDF version of how it appears in the magazine is at the end of the page linked.


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New Directions

It’s hard to believe we are at the end of another academic year. It doesn’t seem long ago since I was welcoming new first years in and giving my final year induction talk to the incoming anxious, but eager fourth years. But here we are already in mid-June, which also means the end of my Teaching Fellowship on pre-lecture resources.

I am becoming more and more certain about the role of discussion in class, which the pre-lectures facilitated.

Looking back on the year, I’m incredibly proud of the work on pre-lecture resources. While the techy bits indulge my nerd-side, their impact on my teaching style will be long lasting. The initial excitement of monitoring their impact quantitatively on student grades was encouraging, but a more influential output is that my concept of what a lecture can be is evolving. I am becoming more and more certain about the role of discussion in class, which the pre-lectures facilitated. Things as elaborate as problem-based learning and as simple as “think-pair-share” all have discussion at their core. I’ve tried with my Learny-Teachy hat on in the past to get students engaged and interacting with me as a lecturer; but almost by accident, the pre-lecture resources got them interacting with each other. Since observing this and the positive impact in the classroom, it’s something that is going to be embedded in my teaching method in the future.

The project is formally finished, although it will of course be tweaked and adjusted for use next year. We, in the Chemistry Education Research Team, are moving on to an exciting new project this month. We’re going back to our roots. Our first collaborative project was on context-based laboratory mini-projects, (you can read the paper here) and we are returning to that theme now to develop a suite of context based laboratory and lecture resources and e-resources, supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It’s a big, quite ambitious project, and we are starting into a busy summer working on it. But like all of these things, lessons formal and informal will trickle into our on experiences as educators, and ultimately into student learning experiences. I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

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Leaving Cert Chemistry – Example of Context

In a previous post, I had a ramble about how the LC chemistry curriculum needs reform. This post aims to put a bit more meat on the bones. There is a lot of material available for teaching chemistry in context, but a recent paper* on the topic is worth considering, as it discusses the implementation of a context-based module in a school setting, particularly focussing on teachers’ experiences.


The paper describes the curricular reform undertaken in Israel, where “since  early 1950s, Israeli chemistry teachers focused on students’ memorization of scientific facts and algorithms that could support them while solving textbook exercises and problems”. Ten modules with a context-based approach were developed designed for the final two years of school chemistry. The module under investigation in this research study was the “Taste of Chemistry” module, dealing with food, nutrition, health and social aspects, along with higher order thinking skills, and was delivered for 30 hours over two months. An underlying philosophy of this approach is that “achieving scientific literacy for all students, not only those who will eventually embark on a career in the sciences, has become a central goal for education“. In describing the approach, the authors state that:

The module focuses on teaching concepts, processes, and different thinking skills along with context-based chemistry topics, such as lipids, carbohydrates and proteins. The students are exposed to the chemical aspect of food and nutrition, and each topic is designed to promote the three main thinking skills embedded in the module:

(1) information analysis and bidirectional transfer between tables and graphs;

(2) molecular representations which include understanding and transfer between various molecular models;

(3) understanding concepts and processes at four chemistry understanding levels [macroscopic, microscopic, symbolic, process].

Example of content

An example of lipids is presented below. If you are not a chemist, its important to realise that the chemistry goals here are similar to what would be desirable from a traditional curriculum – but the rationale for this method is that (a) it presents the information in a contextualised manner (with the benefits of that approach) and (b) additional higher order thinking skills and relevance to informed citizenship can be incorporated at no added cost – the approach throws this in for free.

The goals are that students will “understand the relations between molecular structure of fatty acids (symbolic) and the substance properties (microscopic)” and “understand the importance of fatty acids and lipids to our diet and increasing our awareness to the existence of fats in common foods”. The first goal is a chemical one, the second is a nutritional/health/social one.

The thinking skills associated with these goals are that students will be able to analyze “graphs and tables with information on fatty acids and triglycerides”, transfer between multiple representations of molecular models and transfer between chemistry understanding levels. A case study on chocolate is provided as a means of putting this in practice.

Finally, the activities associated with the lipids topic are investigation of the double bond in fatty acids using plastic and computer models, and investigating free fatty acids in olive oil by inquiry based experiment. This is coupled with a web-guided activity on cholesterol.

Findings of implementation

Eight teachers were engaged in the research study. The advantages of the approach, according to them, was that it gave them the opportunity for professional development (learning new topics, improving knowledge) and that it increased interest and motivation (enjoyed talking with students about how chemistry relates to everyday life). The difficulties were that teachers felt insecure about their background knowledge (summer program was beneficial), unaware about how to facilitate classroom discussions (although the comments indicated that this related to content awareness and was otherwise enjoyable) and that the students were used to symbolic and mathematical representations and found the larger amount of text in the context-based approach was difficult. They also commented on the teaching of thinking skills (analyzing information, molecular representations and chemistry understanding levels).

Implications and Recommendations

This method required continuous support in terms of professional development of teachers, to inform the content and pedagogical aspects of implementing this method. The figure below is used to illustrate the stages of professional development. Another difficulty outlined was that since it was the first run, there wasn’t a template of exam to consider, which made it difficult to prepare. However, even though this was the case, the score achived in this module (91%) was much higher than those in traditional other modules (molecular bonding and structure – 77%, carbon compounds – 79%).

Teachers also provided their own tips for taking this approach, including awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of the approach, broadening knowledge base from a variety of sources to help with discussions, be ready to assist with skills students “should” know from other elements of their teaching – e.g. graphing – in integrative elements, use small group activities to allow students discuss concepts and use models as much as possible.


*S Avargil, O Herscovitz and YJ Dori, Teaching Thinking Skills in Context-Based Learning: Teachers’ Challenges and Assessment Knowledge, J. Sci. Educ. Technol., 2011, DOI: 10.1007/s10956-011-9302-7


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