High school chemistry classes typically go something like this: A teacher stands in front of the room and writes symbols on the blackboard. Students copy them, then move to a wet lab to mix a concoction in a test tube.
The Learning Sciences Research Institute’s Mike Stieff is changing that formula.
With the Connected Chemistry Curriculum, Stieff and his fellow researchers are bringing the seemingly abstract world of chemistry to life for students – and raising test scores, while they’re at it.
“But it’s not just that test scores are going up,” Stieff said. “We’re changing the way kids think about chemistry.”
That’s important for many reasons. The vast majority of students are not doing well in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM classes, he explained. “And in chemistry in particular, some are falling far behind.”
So it is critical, he added, that we have the research that focuses on trying to help students better grasp the concepts that are vital to success in high school, and to those that can lead to promising college- and career-opportunities.
The difficulty educators face is that most students don’t think about how anything in the world around them is composed of atoms or molecules, they focus of chemistry instruction, because molecules are invisible to them. So Stieff created a curriculum for grades 9 to 12 around computer visualization software that illustrates molecules for students. The software lets students manipulate the molecules in a “molecular laboratory” under varying conditions so that they can see what happens and whether or how molecules change.
With his model, teachers are still crucial in the classroom. But Stieff’s computer modeling helps students take a far more active or participatory role in their learning process.
Because they can view and work with molecules on the screen, classical difficulty concepts such as reaction kinetics or gas laws come to life for them. Students can begin to understand why the table in front of them is solid or the soup in their Thermos is liquid from molecular level. They are then better able to begin to make sense of the interactions that take place to make up the building blocks of life as we know it.
His concept isn’t new: Private companies also create visual simulations. But what is different about Stieff’s approach is that his includes lesson plans and teaching strategies that are designed to support the visualizations. The CCC covers nine units – matter, solutions, reactions, gas laws, kinetics, thermodynamics, chemical equilibrium, acids and bases, and nuclear fission and fusion. Without that pairing, educators have found that teachers end up with is a cool toy that doesn’t quite work for their students.
But in Stieff’s case, results so far show that the CCC, as it is called, has helped more 5,000 students across the country who have used it.
His three-year research project, currently funded by IES, builds on his earlier work at other universities that demonstrated the effectiveness of his approach. In that research, students who were taught using Stieff’s curriculum performed better on a national, norm-referenced test than their classmates who were taught using a different method.
In this current phase, which incorporates the visualization with the curriculum, early results so far show that it most effective in urban schools, where low-performing students probably have the most to gain. But researchers also found that high-performing suburban students also were increasing the quality of what they were learning.
Those scores are tough to move. Yet, when they used the CCC, in-depth analysis of test items showed that students’ knowledge of chemistry concepts becomes “better, richer and deeper,” Stieff said.
Stieff and his LSRI team worked with teachers and with UIC students to develop this curriculum and visualization software. Their goal in this was to be sure the materials did what teachers needed it and wanted it to do, he said.