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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Communicating Chemistry at ACS

I just got the schedule for the symposium on Communicating Chemistry at the Spring 2007 American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago. It is being run by the Chemical Education (CHED) and Chemical Information (CINF) divisions. My talk on Open Notebook Chemistry using Blogs and Wikis is at 9:45 on March 27. It looks like there will be lots of interesting presenters and talks. Here is the schedule:

Communicating Chemistry — Part I — Tuesday, March 27

Cosponsored with CINF

L. Fine, Organizer

J. C. Kotz, Organizer, Presiding

8:30 — Introductory Remarks.

8:35 —1604. Pod casting and general chemistry: what is my chemistry professor doing in my iPod? H. D. Bapat

8:55 —1605. Hybrid learning as the bridge between technology and pedagogy in the first and second year chemistry curriculum. T. Poon, T. Morkin

9:15 —1606. Chemistry breaks the Top 100: Podcasting quantum mechanics. M. M. Francl

9:35 — Intermission.

9:45 —1607. Open notebook chemistry using blogs and wikis. J -C. Bradley, K. Mirza, J. Giammarco, A. Holsey, D. Strumfels, S. Gardner, L. Chen

10:05 —1608. What role do grades play in communicating chemistry? W. J. Vining

10:25 —1609. Improving the communication and efficiency in grading of laboratory reports. M. Hadley, J. R. Pribyl, J. A. Kaliski

10:45 — Intermission.

10:55 —1610. Enhancing communication in chemistry courses using DyKnowTM. B. L. Gourley

11:15 —1611. Taking ownership of learning:Can adding technology to the traditional classroom increase the opportunity for students to be more responsible for their own learning? C. M. Turner

11:35 —1612. E-learning chemistry. J. Reeves, J. Tyrell

Communicating Chemistry — Part II — Tuesday, March 27

Cosponsored with CINF

J. C. Kotz, Organizer

L. Fine, Organizer, Presiding

1:30 — Introductory Remarks.

1:35 —1651. Visualizing acid/base chemistry: Using electostatic potential surfaces to teach acid/base strengths. R. W. Morrison, R. Hubbard IV, K. Soncha

1:55 —1652. Open access peer reviewed portal for communicating chemistry: Analytical Sciences Digital Library. H. A. Bullen

2:15 —1653. Comparison of student discourse in online and face-to-face environments. G. C. Weaver, K. F. Green

2:35 — Intermission.

2:45 —1654. Chemical Eye on ears tuned to public radio. P. J. MacDougall

3:05 —1655. Science Outreach in the City of Chicago. M. C. Lach, M. Davis

3:25 —1656. "Smart Cities": Summer science in the mean streets of France. G. P. Niccolai

3:45 — Intermission.

3:55 —1657. Collaborative efforts by Illinois local American Chemical Society sections to promote chemistry at the Illinois state fair. H. D. Bapat

4:15 —1658. Analysis of how scientists explain their research and parallels to how science teachers explain science. H. Sevian, L. Gonsalves

4:35 —1659. Service-learning with a general chemistry lab: Communicating chemistry through application. M. J. Harvey

Communicating Chemistry — Part III — Wednesday, March 28

Cosponsored with CINF

L. Fine, Organizer

J. C. Kotz, Organizer, Presiding

8:30 — Introductory Remarks.

8:35 —1698. Teaching chemical information: Tips and techniques from the Division of Chemical Information Education Committee. S. Cardinal, S. Yu

8:55 —1699. Communicating the chemistry behind issues. B. Venkataraman

9:15 —1700. Teaching chemistry majors to write like chemists. M. S. Robinson, F. L. Stoller

9:35 — Intermission.

9:45 —1701. Investigational writing exercises to complement undergraduate biochemistry experiments. P. J. Higgins

10:05 —1702. Readability levels of college chemistry textbooks from introductory chemistry to physical chemistry. E. A. Drommerhausen, J. R. Pribyl

10:25 —1703. Student opinions of writing assignments in organic chemistry courses for majors. D. P. Cartrette

10:45 — Intermission.

10:55 —1704. How to think logically about organic chemistry. E. T. Papish

11:15 —1705. Communicating the concepts of resonance and conjugation. J. J. Mullins

11:35 —1706. Use of humor and illustrations in organic chemistry lectures. V. Dragojlovic

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fall 2006 Post-Mortem

Another quarter at Drexel is done. I taught the introductory organic chemistry course CHEM241 to about 170 students and special online only sections of CHEM242 and CHEM243 for about 20 students with demonstrable conflicts in their schedule. All lectures were assigned as pre-recorded screencasts and the class time was used as a workshop in the case of CHEM241.

This is what I did and learned.

1) Instead of a blog assignment on any topic for extra credit, I required that they relate some aspect of reactions from the lab notebook of my research group with something learned in class. Here are some selected reports. There were 2 deadlines, each worth 1%. This was tricky for the first deadline because of the limited amount of material covered but the students who were serious in doing this worked with me well before the deadline to come up with a question that they could answer. I used a wiki this term instead of a blog and it worked much better because the evolution of each assignment can be tracked, including my feedback. This was time-consuming but I think that it was beneficial to the students to stretch their understanding of chemistry in a way that relates to the real world.

2) YouTube is a good way to answer student questions that are not directly answered in the lecture archive. The resolution is not as high as a Flash screencast but copying molecules drawn with the default settings of ChemSketch and pasting in a 256 x 256 pixel window in Paint works well. Paint is perfect for drawing curly arrows. Not bad for 100% free software. All of these images are then also standard format for an EduFrag map or a WebCT quiz. I used Camtasia 4 to record and produce an m4v file (for eventual publication as a vodcast), which I uploaded directly into YouTube. This part is not free but I'll bet uploading the avi file generated by the free CamStudio into YouTube would work. However, you can't edit the video in CamStudio.

3) I started to use my collection of high quality sources on Google Co-op to help students in the workshops. For me, this is clearly the way forward in open courseware. More on this next term.

4) All of my Flash files created by Camtasia 2 stopped working on Firefox on PCs and Macs. This is a known issue and we found a solution for this that we are still in the process of implementing. The files were also available as a vodcast on iTunes so the Mac people were fine. With all of the things that can go wrong with technology, redundancy is imperative.

5) The feedback from the evaluations was overall very positive. A few students suggested that I provide a more detailed timeline for watching lectures and doing problems. I gave them a guideline of about 4 hours/week and an inventory of what would be on each test but I can appreciate how something more definite would be comforting for some. I can implement that easily. The freedom to set their own schedule was empowering for many. Others commented on their struggle with procrastination. I don't think there is much difference between an online class the way that I run it compared to face to face lectures. Organic chemistry is about doing problems. In a F2F class, students who procrastinate have the problem of getting good notes from their friends for the classes they skipped in addition to doing problems at the last minute. I learned early on, way before doing anything online, that a good wake-up call for procrastinators is to have a test, a review session then an automatic make-up with more questions in the same amount of time. Failing on the first test is usually motivating.

6) Drexel migrated to a +/- grading system this term and I learned that Excel cannot support more than 7 nested functions in a formula. I use nested IF functions to convert numbers to letter grades.

7) Students who could not make it to the workshops or wanted quicker feedback emailed me their work. Chemistry is very visual. We interacted via text, chemistry program generated structures and scanned paper. But when both student and teacher have TabletPCs, it is probably the most effective way to communicate. Here is an example by Justin, who made really good use of that technology over the term:

Monday, December 11, 2006

YouTube Peer Review

As I mentioned last week, I have started to use YouTube to post brief solutions to organic chemistry problems. This is convenient on many levels, including a nice built in mechanism to accept comments.

This morning someone commented on my Wittig synthesis post, pointing out that the name should be pronounced as a "V" instead of the "W" I was using. That is an interesting point and I'll poll my fellow chemistry colleagues to see how they learned it. Chemistry is usually tested in written format and I know from my interaction with students in workshops that chemistry terms and names are mangled in every way possible. With all the German and Russian names in organic chemistry I will probably be corrected again as I put up more problem solutions.

Another nice feature of YouTube is the ability to easily post video responses. This should prove to be particularly useful for discussing chemistry.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scientific Reflections

It is not always clear what we learn from each stage of life until they are done.

It is only after completing my undergraduate degree that I realized the most important thing I learned was tolerating pain. I still remember what is was like to sit in an interminable lecture and that is one reason I am happy to provide alternative modes of learning for my students.

It is only after my Ph. D. that I understood it was really about learning how to solve problems. The chemistry skills are certainly useful, but completely impotent without that key understanding.

It is only after my postdocs that I realized the most useful thing I learned was how to network effectively and sell myself.

The students working in my lab are also learning and reflecting on what they have learned. The difference is some of them are choosing to make their thoughts public via our UsefulChem wiki. James had this to say last night:
Yes, chemistry is an art. I received the December 4, 2006 issue of C&ENews in the mail and while I can't seem to link to it, there is a very good article on reproducibility by William G Schulz. Here, Schulz has a good quote from a chemistry Professor from Harvard, George M. Whitesides, who says "Sometimes part of the art of chemistry doesn't get included in published papers". I will admit that the first paper we used to make DOPAL we did not follow to the "T" for safety reasons as perchloric acid was a component used at high temperatures, however, it can be frustrating to attempt something again and again and have it seem like no visible improvement has been made. This is in fact not the case. For every 100 experiments done, there are 100 small things learned and they are 100 experiments closer to that 1 in a 1000 that works. Luckily, it did not take 1000 trials to get DOPAL, and in Exp016, success was had! This also brings back into context the Open source nature of the project. All of the "failed" experiments would never be reported in a published paper.

I came across a similar sentiment this morning in a John Eccles quote from the book "In Search of Memory":
In fact I learned from him [Popper] even to rejoice in the refutation of a cherished hypothesis, because that, too, is a scientific achievement and because much has been learned by the refutation.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Orgo Quiz Questions on YouTube

YouTube automatically selects a frame in the middle of an uploaded video to use as the thumbnail image. People have been exploiting this recently by inserting "alluring" but irrelevant images in the middle of their clips to attract more views.

It occurred to me that one could use this feature to deliver quiz questions. I could record a screencast of the solution to a true/false problem then upload it on YouTube. I would just have to make sure that the intended problem appears exactly as I want in the middle of the clip. One could get the answer by watching and listening to my explanation or could fast forward to the end to see the answer.

The nice thing about this is that I can leverage the same 256 x 256 pixel bitmap images that I use in the EduFrag project and in the WebCT quizzes and tests for my organic chemistry classes.
I created an organic chemistry example on the E-2 elimination reaction (also see embedded below). I used Camtasia 4 to do this recording and uploaded to YouTube as an m4v file, which should play quite nicely on a video ipod.

Subscribe to the orgoquiz channel for more.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Google Co-op for Organic Chemistry

Recently I posted about using Google Co-op to consolidate the searching of blogs, wikis and other webpages related to the UsefulChem project. I have been very impressed with the convenience and I wanted to do something similar for my organic chemistry classes.

I included my class blogs, wikis, transcripts in addition to other online textbooks and resources that I consider to be of the highest quality:


I put the search box at the top of the class wiki for CHEM 241, for example. Try searching for concepts like "ketone" and see almost nothing but good stuff in the results. I started using it to access content during this morning's workshop and I am convinced that this is one of the most powerful things to come along for bottom-up open courseware.

Instead of relying on third parties to validate content or generate all purpose federated searches, as teacher I can make the decision of what I want to recommend for my students to use. At any point, for any reason, I can prune or add to the search space. My students can also make their own search engines, for just the class transcript and wiki, for example.

A lot of the search results consist of or link to interactive tutorials or quizzes. I tried to create a separate search engine specifically for assessments but it turns out to be easier just to add the keywords "exercise" or "problem set" in the general orgo search.

When choosing open content, it becomes evident that not all open sources are equally "open". Sites, like the 1200 page Daley and Daley textbook, with free access but requiring registration are completely inaccessible to this type of searching. From the user's perspective this is not really a problem since there is already a healthy redundancy in most of the basic undergraduate organic chemistry materials that are freely available and indexable.

Some would predict the death of the textbook but tradition and habits die hard. Advertisement driven television has survived Tivo and I think textbooks will survive open courseware no matter how good it gets. At least for a while.

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