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Monday, February 07, 2011

Post-Mortem of ChemInfo Retrieval class FA2010

In the fall of 2010 I taught Chemical Information Retrieval at Drexel for the second time. Here are some things I learned.

1. Needed a new wiki.(link here) When I teach a new organic chemistry class, using the same wiki (CHEM241 CHEM242 CHEM243) makes sense because the content doesn't change for the most part, except for test dates and locations. I considered using the same wiki (from 2009) for Chemical Information Retrieval but the nature of the course made that impractical. With the large amount of student generated content in the form of research logs, reports and assignments, it would have been too confusing.

In several ways, last year's wiki proved to be a useful resource. It was convenient to show examples of how to complete the various assignments. Last year's FAQ covered a lot of basic questions and was assigned as study material for the final exam. This year's FAQ could then cover some more subtle aspects of the current state of chemical information.

2. Abstraction to a database format is worthwhile. As I described in more detail elsewhere, this year I had students enter chemical property information from different sources in a Google Spreadsheet instead of just free style on the wiki. It took some time to validate each entry but I am very happy with how the exercise turned out. The dataset can now be properly mined using automated tools and statistics about the current state of chemical information retrieval are now available for a variety of uses.

3. Continuous anonymous feedback by poll is easy. After attending a technology symposium at Drexel I learned about the free polling tool from PollEverywhere. I provided a link on the wiki for students to provide feedback anonymously. They could use their phone to text but in this context I think the web interface is enough. I did get a few submissions which were helpful so I'll continue using this next term.

4. Guest lectures are useful. Again this year I invited a few speakers and they were outstanding. Elizabeth Brown spoke about the semantic web and Dana Vanderwall covered recent trends in drug discovery and cheminformatics, including the sharing of data by pharmaceutical companies. Both speakers agreed to make the recording of their talks available and I think these presentations will be useful to others outside of my class.

5. Classroom design matters. Because students need computers for this class, my options for classroom design are limited. This year I had a classroom with three rows of connected and immovable tables and very little room to walk around. This made it difficult for me to quickly get to students with questions about their projects. It also proved to be problematic for a game that I experimented with involving finding specific papers with chemical properties for a given molecule. We are limited to 4 SciFinder licenses so I had students form 4 teams with one student in each team using SciFinder and the others using the other tools at their disposal. Because students could not easily move around and sit next to each other it created a lot of confusion. I had never really fully appreciated the huge impact of classroom design on teaching modalities.

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