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Changing How Chemistry is Taught, From the Inside Out

Melanie Cooper is a DBER pioneer.

DBER (pronounced “dee-ber”) refers to Disciplined-Based Education Research, commonly defined by the National Academies of Science and the National Research Council as a collection of related research fields that investigate how students learn in particular scientific disciplines and identify ways to improve instruction. While the concept isn’t new within educational research, it is still an emerging idea within the sciences, especially in higher education.

“We – as chemistry professors – were successful in understanding chemistry,” explains Cooper, the Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education at Michigan State University. “We wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t. So we tend to teach the way we were taught.

“But we are the outliers.”

The Science of Teaching Science

When Cooper started her career with a doctorate in organic chemistry in the 1980s, she got the usual newbie assignment that no one else wanted: teaching introductory chemistry for undergraduates. But she found teaching more fulfilling than the bench science that had been the center of her scholarly life up until then.

She was awarded grants from the National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education and other funders to support her work, and soon began publishing her findings in the Journal of Chemical Education: “Writing: An approach for large-enrollment chemistry courses” (1993), “Cooperative chemistry laboratories” (1994) and “Cooperative learning: An approach for large enrollment courses” (1995).

Fast-forward to a recent issue of the Journal of Chemical Education: Cooper and co-author Michael Klymkowsky are featured as the cover article: “Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything: A New Approach to General Chemistry, and a Model for Curriculum Reform.”

Having the cover article in her field’s flagship publication is a proud moment for Cooper. “The article has the potential to be a game-changer,” she explains, “because we have been able to bring together a lot of the research ideas about student learning and make them applicable to a situation where we have thousands of students. I think we can make a big difference. If everybody could do that, we would start to see a major difference.

“All universities have these huge gateway courses,” she continues, “which can be gatekeeper courses, I think. They tend to descend to the lowest common denominator – just because it is easier to handle. The mechanics of dealing with 3000 students is tremendous. So a lot of people have not even thought about using some of these evidence-based teaching methods to change the experience of students.”

Cooper tackled the challenge of teaching these large-enrollment chemistry classes from her perspective as a well-trained scientist – by thinking about theories of learning and using measurements that are rigorously validated.
“If we want students to learn something, it is important for us to think very carefully about how you would measure that,” she asserts. “In the past, this has been more of an ad hoc effort. That is not to say it wasn’t successful, but it wasn’t based in theory and it wasn’t evidence-based.”

She smiles thoughtfully. “A lot of the things we think we know about in education are actually… not true.”

Next Generation Science Teaching

At Michigan State, Cooper became a jointly appointed faculty member of both the College of Education and the College of Natural Science, in recognition of the two disciplines that her research bridges. But she also found a home as part of the university’s CREATE for STEM Institute (Collaborative Research in Education, Assessment, and Teaching Environments for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), under director and College of Education colleague Joe Krajcik.

Cooper knew Krajcik before coming to Michigan State University through their work on the development of the Next Generation Science Standards. They were both members of the leadership committee, and both served on the writing teams for the initiative to develop standards for K-12 science education.

The Next Generation Science Standards document (see http://www.nextgenscience.org/), released in 2013, attempts to describe what it means for students to be proficient in science, outlining the practices scientists engage in, defining the cross-cutting concepts that apply to different domains of science (e.g., scale, proportion and quantity), and focusing on disciplinary core ideas.

Changing Ideas about Big Classes

Meanwhile Cooper is very much involved with her new Michigan State chemistry students. “I developed a general chemistry curriculum that I am now teaching to more than 400 students,” she says. “We’re comparing what students know when they come out of that curriculum with what students know who have been exposed to a traditional curriculum.

“There are many different aspects to this – can students give an explanation for a phenomenon, can they make an argument using evidence, can they use a model to predict and explain something?”

In order to assess her students’ learning, Cooper is collaborating with a group at Michigan State that has developed online assessment tools that can recognize student writing. “We are hopeful that we can develop much more flexible, open-ended systems that can recognize what students construct, rather than what they can recognize.

“Right now most online assessment tools are multiple choice, and they are not very good. Students can ‘game’ multiple choice assessment tools – I don’t blame them!” she laughs. “But it certainly doesn’t help you, as a professor, to understand what they can do with that knowledge – which I think is really important. If all we do is tell students something, and they tell it back to us, I don’t think we have accomplished very much.

“Education is not just about enthusiasm”

Photo: Melanie Cooper (left) was installed as the first Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education in MSU’s Department of Chemistry by Provost June Youatt. Photo courtesy of MSU

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