ChemConnections – A Guide To Teaching With Modules

ChemConnections – A Guide To Teaching With Modules
Joanne L. Stewart & Valorie L. Wilkerson, Hope College
Published by W.W. Norton

Why Modules?
In 1995 The National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the Systematic Changes in Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum Initiative with the aim of improving undergraduate chemistry education. This new program followed in the footsteps of similar initiatives in mathematics and engineering, and was in direct response to calls for curriculum reform in chemistry over many years (Gillespie and Humphreys, 1980; Bodner and Herron, 1980; ACS Educational Policies, 1989; A Nation at Risk, 1983; Carter and Brickhouse, 1989). In the original program announcement, NSF sought changes in the chemistry curriculum that would encourage the integration of chemistry with related disciplines, enhance learning and appreciation of science, and affect all levels of undergraduate instruction. The NSF encouraged institutions to combine their efforts and expertise (NSF, 1999).

A total of five large projects were funded by the Systematic Chemistry Initiative. Each project involves a different consortium of academic institutions, with broad representation from two-year colleges, four-year liberal arts colleges, and comprehensive and research universities. While the five chemistry initiatives represent a variety of perspectives, they share the goal of improving the undergraduate educational experience by using new pedagogical strategies such as group work, hands-on learning, real-world problem solving, and technology enhanced learning as techniques for increasing student engagement in their own learning processes. The ChemConnections modules are a product of the combined efforts of two of these consortia, ChemLinks Coalition and ModularChem Consortium.1

Creating the Modules
The ChemConnections modules’ focus on active learning is based on a deep understanding of how students learn most effectively. Cooperative learning, writing across the curriculum, and guided discovery-based learning have all been shown to increase higher-level thinking and problem solving as well as retention of material. The goal of the modules is to provide resources to instructors that will allow them to transform their classrooms into active, student-centered learning environments. Many faculty are interested in this student-centered pedagogical approach, but have found that developing activities that fit together well, tell a coherent story, and cover the appropriate chemistry content is very time-intensive. ChemConnections modules cover a broad range of chemical topics and provide active learning activities that guide students through the scientific process.

The current paradigm for teaching recognizes that knowledge is constructed, discovered, and extended by students as they interact with their environment. The instructor is important in the learning process as she creates conditions which support and encourage students to construct meaning. For example, classroom research dating back as far as 1929 shows the benefits of cooperative learning over competitive individualistic learning. Cooperative learning helps students achieve in the areas of long-term retention of material, intrinsic motivation, higher-level reasoning, academic and social support for all students, social development, and self-esteem (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1994).

It has also been shown that students learn best when they can build on past experience, relate what they are learning to things that are relevant to them, have direct “hands-on” experience, construct their own knowledge in collaboration with other students and faculty, and communicate their results effectively (Anthony et al. 1998). The modules, therefore, are based on questions from the students’s surroundings such as: What should we do about global warming?, and How can we purify our water?

Finally, the integration of laboratory work into the context of problem solving is an important goal of the modules. The inquiry-based laboratory activities are designed to allow students to discover at least some of the chemical principles underlying the experiments. There are also opportunities for students to design experiments and communicate their results.

Module instructors have responded enthusiastically to the transformation of their classrooms into places of rich, active learning. In fact, many have said that they would never “go back” to a more traditionally structured classroom. Teaching with modules creates a lively, dynamic environment where learning, thinking, and doing science are of primary importance.

What is a Module?
Each Module centers on an interesting question that provides a context for understanding and applying specific chemistry concepts. The module question, and its accompanying story line, provide a contextual framework and springboard for guided inquiry and exploration. A Module consists of a series of Sessions of varying length. Each Session focuses on a smaller, more specific question, and it is through answering the Session questions that students gain the understanding necessary to answer the Module question. All Sessions contain Explorations, which include in-class and out-of-class exercises and laboratory activities. The final Session of the Modules is a Culminating Activity, often project-based, for assessment of student learning of chemistry concepts and scientific thinking skills.

The questions, problems, and activities presented in the Modules are intended for use in the classroom and laboratory as substitutes to standard lectures and experiments. Students are encouraged to use a textbook in addition to the Modules as a resource. Module authors and instructors continue to discuss the best way to use the textbook. Usually instructors have the students read the relevant parts of the textbook as they work through the module. It is a good idea to put the textbook reading assignments in the Module syllabus. Some instructors have students work problems from the text in order to provide extra “practice” on some of the concepts.

Modules are divided into Sessions. Each Session is numbered roughly in the order of use. Each Exploration carries the Session number followed by a letter. For example, the first Exploration of the sixth Session is called Exploration 6A. An Exploration usually takes up part or all of a typical (1 hour) class period, though some Explorations can be longer or shorter. As with Session questions, Exploration questions form a coherent intellectual package for inquiry, and thus vary in length depending on context and content.

First Session: A Starting Point and "Buy In"
The first session of a module often begins with an exercise that allows students to assess their current understanding of the module topic. It may include a reading of video that demonstrates why the topic is important. It may include an exercise where students brainstorm in groups about what they will need to learn in order to be able to answer the module question. In some modules, the first session contains significant chemistry content and skills building exercises. In others, it serves to introduce and set the context for the culminating activity.

The opening session may be structured as a guided discussion. The module may contain a reading and some questions based on the reading for students to complete before class. When students have completed the reading questions, they meet in class and break up into small groups to discuss their answers. Some examples of Session 1 activities are provided.

Examples of First Sessions

Build A Better CD Player: How Can You Get Blue Light From A Solid?
Session 1: How Can You Make A Solid Give Off Light?
Students read articles from the popular literature about the development of blue LED’s. They are given a set of discussion questions with the readings that help them understand why this is an important topic. They brainstorm either individually or in groups on applications of blue LED’s and blue diode lasers and on things they will need to learn to be able to answer the module question “How can you get blue light from a solid?”

Why Does The Ozone Hole Form In The Antarctic Spring?
Session 1: What Does the Public Know about Ozone?

Students are asked to write about one aspect of the ozone hole with which they are already familiar. Groups then gather to formulate questions about ozone they would like answered. Finally students are introduced to media claims about ozone. They are asked to continue thinking about these claims throughout the module so they can be prepared to respond to them in a formal report for the culminating activity.

Computer Chip Thermochemistry: How Can We Create an Integrated Circuit From Sand?
Session 1: How can we create an integrated circuit from sand?

The instructor guides students through a demonstration that shows the major components of a circuit and their functions. Students then look at integrated circuits either with a magnifying glass or on the CD-ROM that comes with the module and compare them to the circuits they looked at in the demonstration. Finally, students look at internet resources or simulations on their CD-ROM to learn what chemical reactions are used to build integrated circuits.

Earth, Wind and Fire: What is Needed To Make an Effective Air-Bag System?
Session 1: What is needed to make an effective air-bag system?

Students watch a video showing what happens to dummies in car crashes and are asked to brainstorm requirements for an effective air-bag system. Students then develop a plan to study how air-bags are inflated by using resources from the virtual company Air-Bags ‘R’ Us provided on the CD-ROM.

Middle Sessions: The Inquiry
The middle sessions are the heart of the module. They contain student exercises, laboratories, and computer activities that enable students to understand the chemistry and develop the skills they need in order to answer the module question. The activities and laboratories are called Explorations. The structure of the middle sessions and the Explorations are where a lot of the flexibility is built into the module. Instructors may choose which Explorations fit their goals and resources.

The goal of an exploration is either to learn something that is needed to answer a Session question or to go beyond a Session question and consider ideas that are related to the Session. Students may be given readings and discussion questions that they work on individually and in small groups. A worksheet involving chemical calculations may be completed in small groups. Students may design and carry out a laboratory experiment, such as measuring how much carbon dioxide they exhale in a year. They may examine real atmospheric data from the Internet and work in pairs to answer a set of questions about the data. An Exploration is not of any one fixed length. It may be completed in-class or it may include an out-of-class component such as reading, writing, homework problems, or computer exercises. Instructors do not need to include all of the Explorations in a Session. The module’s instructor’s manual will indicate which Explorations are most critical for answering the Session question and which ones are less critical.

The title of an Exploration contains a question to be answered by the Exploration and a phrase indicating what chemistry content will be covered. The Exploration begins with a Creating the Context section, which is usually brief text that introduces and frames the Exploration question and connects it to the module story line. The Preparing for Inquiry section includes the background reading, activities, and/or questions that help students prepare on their own for the main activities in the Exploration. This may be pre-lab questions or pre-class homework or reading.

The Building Ideas section is the centerpiece for the guided inquiry that develops the core ideas in the Exploration. It can be done in many different ways and usually uses active and/or cooperative learning. Students concisely answer the Exploration question at the end of this section.

Most Explorations contain more practice problems or questions using the chemistry ideas and thinking skills that were developed in the Exploration. These problems may be used as either additional in-class work, as out-of-class homework, or as test questions.

At the end of each middle session is a section called Making the Link. This section allows students to reflect on the chemistry they have learned in the context of the module question, and may ask students to examine the chemistry in other contexts. Making the Link contains the following parts.

Looking Back: What have you learned?
This is a list of chemistry concepts and thinking skills that were covered in the session.

Checking Your Progress
This includes text and/or activities that integrate the idea, connect to the Session Question and story line, assess progress on the culminating activity, and look ahead.

Thinking Further
This section may contain additional problems that could be used for homework or tests, or there may be additional readings supplied that the module authors found particularly interesting. Some modules have sections that allow students to apply their new knowledge and skills in a different context.

An Example of a Middle Session
As an example of a middle Session, we will examine Session 4 in Fats, How is Fat a Concentrated Energy Source? The Explorations are:

Exploration 4A: How do we get energy from what we eat?
Exploration 4B: How is energy stored in chemical bonds?
Making the Link: How is fat a concentrated energy source?

Session 4 begins with a reading on a solo trek to the North Pole that describes caloric intake and some text that gives background information and spells out the goals for the Session. In Exploration 4A, students carry out a simple calorimetry experiment on the combustion of nuts, cheese puffs, or other snack foods. There are discussion questions that ask students to think critically about the experiment (sources of error, precision, and accuracy). Exploration 4B has several parts. First, students complete a worksheet by computing enthalpy of reaction from bond energies. Then they convert their answers to Calories/gram and classify glucose, octane, stearic acid, and ethanol into fuel types. Finally, students are asked to use conversion techniques to answer questions about the calories in food. In the Making the Link section, students are asked to interpret data about rates of obesity in America. Students are also asked to determine which of a list of reactions is a good source of chemical energy and to determine if eating fats actually burns calories and thus makes us skinnier.

Final Session: Culminating Activity
The culminating activity allows the students to pull together what they have learned to answer the module question. There are usually several options for the culminating activity described in the individual instructor’s manuals: students may write an essay, design a product, teach the topic to someone outside the class, or participate in a debate or town meeting.

The culminating activity is the capstone for the module. The students are expected to bring together all of the chemistry they have learned and the skills they have developed in order to answer the module question. In each case, students are asked to think critically about their answer or their solution and defend it with sound scientific arguments. Often they are also asked to consider broader aspects of the question, such as social or economic factors.

The modules are designed to provide instructors with significant flexibility on the structure of the project. Instructors are encouraged to think creatively and to define a project that best fits their students and their resources. Some modules explicitly provide several options for the culminating activity. Some examples of Culminating Activities are described.

Examples of Culminating Activities

What Should We Do About Global Warming?
Students may write a paper individually, carry out a mock United Nations meeting, or hold a poster session where they address the question “What Should We Do About Global Warming?” Students are told to consider the trends in average global temperature, the role of human activity, the magnitude and nature of potential effects of global warming, and society’s options in responding. They are told to consider the political, economic, and social ramifications of their answer, as well as the scientific data.

Computer Chip Thermochemistry: How Can We Create an Integrated Circuit from Sand?
There are two options provided where students answer the questions “How do we use thermodynamics in the productions of integrated circuits?” The first is a jig-saw discussion, where students first become experts on one step (planting, etching, etc.) then the experts come together in a group to plan out the best sequence of steps for making an integrated circuit. In the other option, students actually design and make a complex pattern on an aluminum substrate. This takes more time, but it is more hands-on than the discussion.

Why Does The Ozone Hole Form In The Antarctic Spring?
There are two options for the culminating activity. The first option asks students to use scientific data and reasoning to write a persuasive response to incorrect media claims. The second option challenges students to teach peers who are not in the class about ozone. This project encourages students to have a complete grasp of the information and articulate the information in a way that is understandable.

1 The members of ChemLinks are Beloit College, Carleton College, College of Wooster, Colby Community College, Colorado Community College, Eastern Idaho Technical College, Edmonds Community College, Grinnel College, Hope College, Kalamazoo College, Knox College, Lawrence University, Malacester College, Montana Tech of the University of Montana, Pierce College, Rhodes College, Spelman College, Spokane Community College, St. Olaf College, University of Chicago, Washington University–St. Louis. The members of Modular Chem are University of California–Berkeley, University of California–San Diego, California State University–Hayward, California State University–Los Angeles, Clark Atlanta University, Mills College, Morehouse College, Canada College, Contra Costa College, Diablo Valley College, Laney College, Merritt College, Mesa College, Miramar College, Ohlone Community College, Vista College.