From Play-Doh to Venus

Research in Chemistry Education

June 4, 2019 | Atlanta, GA

This essay by Michael Evans was first published in The Xylom on Feb. 20, 2019. Evans is the freshman chemistry laboratory coordinator in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

What is expertise?

This is a question with which academics have grappled for hundreds of years.

It’s not just “knowing stuff”—if it were, trivia champions would find themselves advising the government. Experts are more like master sculptors of knowledge than hard drives with huge storage capacity. The “stuff” an expert knows is the clay, but it’s the shaping of that clay that defines true mastery of a subject. This sculpting happens at both an individual and collective level. An expert can watch their field as a whole and see where it is going by watching colleagues mold and shape it. An expert sees structure and order where a novice sees a dizzying mass of incoherent information.

Research efforts within a field are typically directed toward the achievement of a set of high-level goals broadly shared by members of the community. The quality of a particular research project can thus be vaguely assessed as the extent to which it contributes to reaching these goals. In chemistry, we work to create materials with predictable properties and reactions that are efficient and sustainable. In the physical sciences generally, the high-level goals are usually pretty clear. But what about the social sciences? What are the high-level goals of research in, say, chemistry education?

Experts are more like master sculptors of knowledge than hard drives with huge storage capacity.

The teaching and learning of organic chemistry have been the focus of my expertise since graduate school. I am fascinated by the ways in which learners at all levels make mistakes that reflect common chemical misconceptions or even deeper cognitive biases. A big part of my motivation is a personal drive to become a “more perfect teacher” by helping students recognize problematic patterns in their thinking and connect ways of thinking that they already have to problems in organic chemistry. I am also intrigued by the ways in which new technologies can facilitate learning. Given that I have been following the primary literature of organic chemistry education and applying what I’ve learned for over ten years, I suppose I’m an expert in organic chemistry education—but I often don’t feel that way!

It certainly is possible to describe overarching goals for chemistry education research, and the community has been continuously revising and updating the list for many decades. I’ve listed a few below. As you read the list, keep in mind that these goals are ideals that the community will likely never reach. They are limits for infinite time and effort.

  1. A complete model that describes learners’ assimilation and application of chemical knowledge and skills.

  2. A set of learning activities, media, and other tools that enable all students to independently study and learn any aspect of the chemistry curriculum.

  3. A curriculum that trains students to excel in their future professions and that meets the practical requirements of institutions that employ chemists.

  4. A knowledge structure for chemistry as it is taught that reflects the understanding of the chemistry research community but makes appropriate simplifications for particular students or student populations.

In theory, published research and other activities in chemistry education should push the community a little bit closer to these goals. Unfortunately, in practice, it is rarely clear that a particular research project actually does this. Before digging into the case in chemistry education, it’s worth noting that the same thing happens in the physical sciences more broadly. Some papers end up being the root of decades-long research programs spanning the entire globe; others turn out to be edge cases that fade quickly from the communal consciousness. It is not easy to see what kind of work will endure, even in the physical sciences. Particular challenges in chemistry education make it even harder.

One of our core challenges is that all research in chemistry education is situated in a particular context that, unless great care is taken, can influence results. Context is at once critical to consider and a potential scapegoat to explain away inconvenient results. Work with an ideological bent, in support of or counter to a particular ideology, can be dismissed with knee-jerk cries of “poor experimental design!” or the classic “that isn’t true at my university!” There is hard mental work involved in considering context to an appropriate degree without falling into the trap of an instant write-off. I try to imagine stretching the circumstances of a study to their limit. For example, would findings in an on-campus setting still be observed in an online course?

Put simply, we still know very little about how learning works and how students tick!

So much of what appears in the modern chemistry education literature is “students do this” or “students do that.” It is easy to write off many of these results as too contextualized to be useful. After all, the spectrum of possible student thoughts and behaviors seems immense. How do I know that my students will display the same tendencies as your students? What makes a particular student behavior generalizable, anyway?

In the physical sciences, findings that are consistent with a well-established theoretical model are strong candidates for publishing. In STEM education research, the theoretical ground is much less firm. Theories mutate over time and become completely different from their ancestral forms. Connecting results to a theoretical model is still important, but the theoretical landscape is massive and such connections thus give the reader less insight into the mechanisms underlying the results. Put simply, we still know very little about how learning works and how students tick!

This situation can dishearten chemists who happen to have an obligation to teach. But for teachers who also happen to be chemists like myself, the situation is exciting. Through a great deal of noise, we are searching for signals that point to the deep structure of chemistry and the ways in which students engage with it. I feel exhilarated when I read a research finding that resonates with my own teaching practice. As dizzying as the day-to-day process of following the literature can be, to see chemistry education research slowly but surely sculpt itself into a robust research field has given me great hope for the future of STEM education.

For More Information Contact

A. Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D.
Director of Communications
College of Sciences