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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

More Constructivist Chemistry

We're about midway through our Fall term at Drexel and the students have just completed their first extra credit project in my organic chemistry class.

In the Spring term, I had given my students a few options, including doing a blog assignment relating a research article to some concept that they were learning in class. In order to maintain a reasonable quality on the blog and help the students learn, I would give feedback using comments on the blog right up to the deadline when no more changes were accepted. Although this worked pretty effectively in terms of the final product, when a lot of changes were required, it was impossible to follow the evolution of the process.

This term I made a few changes to the extra credit assignment. First, I moved it to a wiki so that it would be clear who contributed what and how the post evolved. Second, the only option I gave was correlating what was learned in class with real lab research conducted on the synthesis of new anti-malarial compounds. This is a luxury that I now have because the lab notebook of my research group is posted directly in real time to a wiki.

Here is the result. Six out of 170 students participated. I purposefully make the extra credit very low (1% of final grade) because this is fairly time-consuming for an instructor and I mainly want students who are already intrinsically motivated in this side of chemistry to participate. Remember that we are talking about undergraduates taking introductory organic chemistry trying to make sense of graduate level research work in progress.

Contrary to many of my colleagues, I strongly encourage students to use Wikipedia as a reference. It turns out that for data like boiling points for simple compounds, it is pretty reliable. It is not the only source but it is a good place to start. One of my students was doing a post on the chirality of adrenaline, which is one of the compounds we use in our research. Surprisingly, the chirality of naturally occurring adrenaline was not posted on Wikipedia. After digging around and finding 2 separate sources confirming that the chirality was R, my student updated the Wikipedia entry for adrenaline. (If you don't know what chirality is follow the link in that post to the recorded lecture and learn some chemistry :) - it has to do with the mirror images of molecules)

There is a lot of leverage in this system:
  • Imagine if teachers from around the world included updating Wikipedia as part of the process of evaluating student projects.
  • Imagine if students from around the world made constructive comments about our lab work as it is being posted.
  • Imagine if more research labs made their work in progress available for open evaluation.

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