June 8, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 19

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    ChemLinks: Changing the way chemistry is taught to undergraduates

    The University of Chicago will be a principal player in a multi-institutional effort to reform how chemistry is taught to first- and second-year undergraduates. The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2.7 million five-year grant to the ChemLinks Coalition -- a coalition of 13 liberal-arts colleges centered in the Midwest plus Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis.

    The ChemLinks Coalition's primary motivations for reform are to make the chemistry curriculum more accessible to students and to make the curriculum more closely reflect the work of scientists, said David Oxtoby, Director of the James Franck Institute, Professor in Chemistry and one of three co-principal investigators on the grant.

    "We began by asking the question, how do we do science as scientists?" Oxtoby said. "Number one, we ask interesting questions. Number two, we try to answer those questions. What we typically do with college students is completely the opposite: We answer a lot of questions that no one has bothered to ask."

    In a typical first- or second-year class, Oxtoby said, a professor starts out at the beginning of the week by saying something like, "Now we're going to learn about acids and bases."

    "It's not clear to the students why they should be learning about acids and bases except that it's going to be on the exam," Oxtoby said.

    The ChemLinks Coalition will change the way students experience the first two years of the undergraduate chemistry curriculum by helping them understand that chemistry is not a set of abstract and unrelated concepts to be learned, but rather an intellectually challenging process for asking and answering questions related to their interests and to the needs of society.

    The NSF grant money will provide support for faculty members in the coalition to develop a modular approach to teaching chemistry. Each module would consist of material that could be taught in two to four weeks and would be designed to stand alone yet relate to the other modules. Three sets of modules -- each set constituting a yearlong first-year course -- are being developed along the themes of chemistry and the environment, chemistry and life processes, and chemistry in industry and technology.

    "For example," Oxtoby said, "in one of the modules, we might begin with the question, why are forests in the northeastern United States and Canada being destroyed? Is it because of pollution? If so, what are the constituents that are causing it? This leads into an opportunity to introduce the topic of acids and bases -- within an appropriate context -- which will give students the tools to begin to understand the deforestation problem. We would begin to develop the concept of pH, learn how to measure it and look at what chemical reactions occur in the atmosphere that might contribute to changing the pH."

    He said that although the instructor will guide the direction of the material, exploring questions that students ask will be a key element, and collaborative problem-solving and small-group learning will be stressed. "We want this to be student-centered learning," he said.

    Oxtoby, who chairs the working group on the environmental-chemistry theme, said the coalition hopes to develop three to four modules per year in each of the three working groups. Each module will be developed by two instructors from two different schools working together, and the modules will then be tested at the other schools.

    Oxtoby said that the goals of the project are to have an impact beyond the 15 schools in the coalition, and he hopes that once the approach has proved successful, publishers will become interested in publishing modules as well as textbooks.

    The ChemLinks Coalition, headquartered at Beloit College in Wisconsin, is one of four groups funded under the NSF's initiative for systemic changes in the undergraduate chemistry curriculum. The ChemLinks Coalition will work closely with one of the other groups funded by the NSF, the Modular Chemistry Coalition, which is composed of California state universities and community colleges, as well as Spelman and Morehouse colleges in Atlanta.

    -- Diana Steele