Success in chemistry requires that students develop mathematical and conceptual understanding of topics, embrace the inquiry-based nature of science, and learn to communicate complex ideas with lucidity and accuracy. In general chemistry, students establish a new vocabulary and a foundation in mathematical manipulations based on chemical equations. Throughout the curriculum, students should also experience the creative nature of scientific research and the importance of communicating experiments and results clearly. I help my students achieve these goals by addressing both quantitative and conceptual understanding while grounding their learning in inquiry and in the larger community beyond the classroom.
Fostering Mathematical and Conceptual Understanding
Students can often master the algorithmic side of chemistry without appreciating the practical implications of their calculations; however, chemistry is not just math with units. To highlight this, I design my problem-sets around real-world examples. In Chem 112 (Introductory Chemistry II), I provided students with case studies exploring real-world examples, such as gold recycling, and their connection to course material. These assignments provide students with an opportunity to practice connecting interrelated course concepts and identifying necessary information from larger data sets. I also provide explicit opportunities for students to estimate answers before “plugging and chugging,” encourage them to evaluate the plausibility of their answers in context and emphasize proportional reasoning skills. For example, in a unit on rate laws, my students practice predicting how and why rates of reaction will change with variables such as reagent concentration and temperature without having specific values to plug in to equations. When we do longer calculations, I provide frequent opportunities for small group practice as an immediate check for novice students, who may falsely equate surface comprehension of an instructor-led example with the deeper understanding needed to solve problems independently. As problems become more complex, I also help my students become proficient in using computer software to complete their calculations. In fact students in advanced classes, such as Chem 311 (Analytical Chemistry) and Chem 312 (Instrumental Analysis) often identify the use of Excel in homework and laboratory exercises as one of the most valuable and transferable aspects of the class.
In parallel with this quantitative problem-solving, I use short answer and writing assignments to build conceptual understanding. In class, homework, and exams, I ask students to explain phenomena, evaluate methods, and predict the results of experiments: Why is it safe to put out a grease fire with baking soda, but not with flour? What separation method would you use to characterize a skunk’s spray, and why? What will happen if I double the amount of fuel in a piston before ignition? Longer writing assignments give students an opportunity to think deeply about specific concepts and to identify weak points in their understanding by working to articulate newly learned ideas. In Chem 311, students write a project lab proposal, several short reports of analysis, and two full length journal article reports with revisions.
Grounding Learning in Research and Inquiry
Even beginning students and non-majors should understand that “doing science” means proposing new questions, formulating hypotheses around these questions, and designing experiments to test them. Consequently, I include project- and inquiry-based learning in the teaching laboratory. In Chem 311 and Chem 312, students master techniques and explore the available instrumentation during initial guided exercises, then design a capstone project that utilizes a specific methodology and/or instrument. The students write a proposal on their plans and spend 3 weeks on a detailed investigation of a real-world sample. Recent projects have included the determination of iron in spinach and construction of a home-built UV-Vis instrument with a cell phone camera detector. I also emphasize the creative nature of scientific research in the lecture portion of class, where we discuss primary journal articles describing cutting-edge applications of spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, electrochemistry, and separations. I prepare guided reading assignments to scaffold the students’ engagement with these articles, and we spend a class period discussing each manuscript and exploring its connection to course concepts.
Undergraduate research experience is critical for any student planning to pursue a career as a professional chemist. During my career, I have mentored eleven undergraduate researchers and seen firsthand how research-based problem-solving enhances a student’s training. Through undergraduate research, a student gains ownership of a specific scientific question and experiences the creative nature of scientific endeavor. Undergraduate research also introduces students to the larger scientific community. Research students at Trinity present their projects to campus community at the semiannual science symposiums, the Joint Science Presentations, and department seminars. They have also presented work to a wider audience at the Connecticut Valley Section ACS meeting. These experiences provide valuable professional development and hopefully ignite a lifelong passion for discovery.
Learning by Teaching
Teaching and learning are complementary processes: few activities produce the depth of understanding gained by teaching an idea to someone else. In Chem 312, I have added a community learning initiative in partnership with Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. 6th grade students from HMTCA collected water samples from various locations in the Connecticut River watershed. The Chem 312 students guided the 6th grade students through water quality tests on these samples and assisted them in selecting a subset of samples for trace metals determination by inductively coupled plasma – atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP-AES) using instrumentation at Trinity. The Chem 312 students analyzed the selected samples for arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead. The Chem 312 students presented their results, along with a grade-level appropriate explanation of ICP-AES, to the 6th grade students in a video report. These presentations allow students to develop important professional skills and solidify their understanding of technical concepts, but equally important, these experiences foster a spirit of community involvement that is critical to the educating “the whole person.”
I also continue to learn through my own teaching. I am a strong believer in evidence-based teaching, and I frequently refer to articles from the Journal of Chemical Education, the Journal of the Analytical Sciences Digital Library, and the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) database to inform my teaching. As an analytical chemist, I make accurate and precise measurements of chemical information, so I am similarly interested in methods to accurately assess student learning and evaluate pedagogical techniques. In addition to my training through SPIRE, I regularly seek out professional development opportunities to improve my teaching. I also seek constructive criticism and evaluations from more experienced teachers and from my students. Throughout the semester, I solicit anonymous feedback from my students and adjust my teaching accordingly. I also reflect on long-term student outcomes, including my students’ success in subsequent courses and professional progress. Ultimately, I measure my success as a teacher as reflected in the personal and professional successes of my students.