Monday, May 26, 2014

Use of iPads in Chemistry Varies from Level to Level

Mole Calculations and Lewis Dot Structures in a First Level Chemistry Class

Up to this point I have tried to use the iPad in Organic Chemistry lab and 2nd semester General Chemistry Lecture and Lab.  My colleague Cheryl Shimazu has used the iPads in 1st semester General Chemistry.  This semester I decided to use them in my Preparatory Chemistry class.  I wanted to see how students in their first semester of chemistry, and some in their first year of college, would work with the iPads.  My plan was to reinforce mole calculations during lab time.  We have a lab in this class that we have been thinking about replacing for some time so I took the liberty of doing a different kind of "hands-on" experience.

Moles are one of the cornerstones of chemistry.  Up to this point in the semester students have mastered dimensional analysis with mostly familiar units.  But using the mole takes dimensional analysis to a whole new level.  If students can master moles then they will have a very high chance of succeeding in the rest of the calculations of chemistry.  But often students get stuck in the "mole hole."

I really want them to "master" the concept of moles and how to perform gram to mole and mole to mole and particle to mole calculations.  I think that if they are required to explain the concept they will have a chance for it to sink in deep.  So as I have many times I turned to the iPads and the app "Educreations" to give the students a chance to teach the world. Here are some links to their productions and then I will make some observations:

Student demonstration of mole calculation #1

Student demonstration of mole calculations #2

What I found was that these students were much quicker at completing the assignment than the higher level students.  They worked hard but they did not seem to be as picky as my General Chemistry or Organic Chemistry students.  Generally my colleague and I have found that the lower the level the quicker the students are and more likely to take a risk.  They did not try to be as perfect as the upper students.  This of course has an up and a down side.  The up side was that they completed the task in enough time for me to assign them another task with the iPads.  In this same unit students are learning to draw Lewis dot structures.  In a 3 hour lab period the students were able to easily complete the two screencasts (mole calculation and Lewis dot).  My ultimate goal for the students was to have them explain the concept so that it would deepen their understanding.  I think this was accomplished.  Having the presentations be beautiful is secondary to me at this point.  So I am very pleased with the outcome.  The average grade on the exam (#2) was 86%.  The previous time I taught this class the average on this exam was 71%.  I cannot say it is a perfect comparison as the sample size is too small and there are too many variables, but the correlation is favorable to the use of iPads.  On the exam they have to perform calculations very similar to those they sreencasted. Here are some examples of the Lewis dot structure screencasts:

Student demonstration of Lewis dot structure #1

Student demonstration of Lewis dot structure #2

This was the only time we used iPads this last semester in this class.  But for me it may have been the most enjoyable use of iPads in the classroom so far.  The students seemed to enjoy the experience.  Here are some of their comments:

"It was a great way for me to listen to myself speak and correcting my terminology on the subject. Giving me a better understanding of what I was teaching but wasn't quite sure about."

"I felt this exercise helped me better understand the problem for the reason that I was explaining rather than being on the other end and listening. I greatly recommend this method of teaching."

"I feel like I'm in a school of the future"

"This app is pretty cool and helps you interact more with the lessons"

One thing I have learned from the last two semester is not to overuse the iPads.  I think last semester I used them too much and the students lost the joy of learning with the new technology.  With my Prep Chem. class this was definitely not the case.  Many asked, "When are we going to get to use the iPads again?"

Friday, April 4, 2014

Creating "90 Second Documentaries" on the iPad

Steam distillation is a very common experiment done in organic chemistry labs everywhere.  I like this experiment.  We start with ground cloves and take out the essential oil eugenol.  The room begins to smell of this wonderful molecule and it reminds me of pumpkin pie and all of those delightful smells of thanksgiving!  Here is the structure of this molecule that can be found on the iPad app called "Nice Molecules":

I took a screenshot of the molecule and saved the image as a jpeg on my desktop iMac.  I just marvel at the way molecules are put together and the way their structure produces their function.  My students like that fact that we are not just performing steam distillation on any old molecule.  Eugenol is something that is used every day and it allows me to demonstrate the relevance of chemistry to our whole life.  The big challenge of using iPads in my organic chemistry class to produce digital lab reports has been time.  It takes a lot of time for the students to learn the technology of an app like Explain Everything.  It takes a lot of time to produce the video from their pictures and voice and all of the cool tools you have with this screen casting app.  I had the students produce videos for simple and fractional distillation and one of the screencasts was almost 18 minutes long!  I think they should be limited to about 7 minutes or so.  

For steam distillation I decided to go a different direction.  I just attended the CUE conference in Palm Springs and heard about the idea of using iMovie to make trailers.  In this app there are templates that make it very easy to create these short, information-packed movies.  I wanted to have my students be familiar with the technology of this app before they came to class so I assigned them to watch two YouTube videos on making trailers with the iPad app iMovie.  They had to send me their evaluations of these "How to" videos via a google form.  When they came to class the next day I told them that their quiz on the steam distillation lab was to create a short "documentary" or trailer using iMovie.  Their creation had to describe the purpose, process and product of steam distillation of eugenol.  The first movie is a trailer using the iMovie template.  Be careful the music makes it very dramatic!


The second movie is not a trailer. The students simply used iMovie to make a quick video describing steam distillation in 90 seconds.  Here it is:


This quiz was an experiment for me.  Could they capture the essence (pun intended) of steam distillation  in 90 seconds?  

As I reflect and assess my assignment I think that steam distillation is probably too hefty of a concept to capture in such a short amount of time.  The students were able to explain the second half of the experiment which includes extracting the eugenol from water with methylene chloride and drying the solution.  But explaining how the process of steam distillation lowers the boiling point of eugenol from 254 degrees to below 100 degrees in a few short sentences is a bit of a stretch.  In some of the trailers the students tried to add "titles" that are just too long and go off of the screen.  Also the Ken Burns affect does not work for every photo.  I think the 90 second documentary format would be better for one of the other lab experiments.  Nevertheless the students seemed to enjoy themselves and learn.  When asked if they would like to do this kind of assignment again for a quiz three fourths of the students said yes.  

When I specifically asked:  "How did this format help you learn chemistry?", many of the students answered that they had to explain the chemistry and that helped them learn it.   When asked what they liked most about this approach, many said they liked the ability to use their creativity.  So with that I can say one of my main goals was achieved.  When I asked the students if they would rather do the digital or written format, two said written, the rest said that it did not matter or they would prefer digital.  

The steam distillation of eugenol is a fantastic way to connect chemistry to everyday life.  First of all one can talk about how so many flavors and aromatic substances are extracted from natural sources. This includes nutmeg (isoeugenol) and vanilla (vanillin) and so many others.  Also one can learn about the process of how we smell molecules with the benzene or aromatic ring.  But there is something even more interesting to me and that is the connection between these spices and history.  In many ways the world is the way it is today because of the way European countries sought after spices, and specifically these aromatic molecules.  Just think about how the quest for spices fueled colonization, shipping, trading, world exploration, wars, slavery and the entire financial system.  America was "discovered" by Europeans looking for essential molecules, even though they would not have put it that way.  The source of eugenol, the clove plant, was grown on a tiny island called Run in what is now Indonesia.  It was owned by Britain.  But the Netherlands wanted it badly.  The two countries fought over this little piece of isolated land.  Finally they decided to trade.  The Netherlands gave New Amsterdam to Britain in return for Run and the all important eugenol.  What was the new name the British quickly gave to New Amsterdam?  New York!  Just try to tell me chemistry doesn't effect everything!   You can read more about how molecules affected history and much more in the wonderful book Napoleons Buttons.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Students Teach the Teachers

At Cerritos College we have an "iPad work group" made up of faculty members and an IT guy who all received an iPad with the exhortation: "Go explore."  I just love the attitude of the folks at my school.   The work group is sort of like the old "skunk works" research group that engineering firms used to test and innovate new ideas.  In February we met on a Friday for a workshop.  this workshop was quite different from any I had attended, because it was run by students! I have learned by working with iPads that the students come in with very little iPad skill.  But after a couple of digital lab reports  using Explain Everyting or screencasts articulating difficult chemistry concepts using Educreations the students become way more adept at using iPads than I am.  So because they know it so well I invited two students to come in and teach us how to use these tools.  It is also way more powerful when the students explain how the technology has transformed their learning.  For this workshop I chose Lily to present how she uses Educreations and Cristina demonstrated Explain Everything.  Then they had us faculty try to create our own presentation and then share with the group.  It was really inspiring to see these students teach us.  And I think it was really empowering for these two young ladies.  A week later I told my colleague from Cal State Long Beach, Laura Henriques about the experience.  She said, "Would you please submit and article for the California Science Teachers Association Newsletter? And have the students write the article."

What Cristina and Lily wrote really moved me to think about the power of iPads and it challenged me to think about my role as a teacher and how I can be that role better.  Here is a clip from their wonderful article:

Continue reading article on CSTA Website

It is really powerful when the students are "allowed to drive."

I wish were my first instinct to hand off more control to students, but usually I don't think to let the students lead. But when they do lead everybody wins.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Students Construct Understanding of Heavy Concepts Using iPads

How do we acquire knowledge?

I used to think that teaching was essentially teacher centered.  The teacher would convey knowledge in the form of lecture and the students would absorb it.  Of course the students had to study in order to commit this knowledge to memory and deepen understanding, but this lecture model was the best way to teach in my mind.  In short, this is teaching by telling.

It didn't work so well.  I distinctly remember when I realized this many years ago.  It was gas laws.  Yes those gas laws get 'em every time! I thought I did it so well.  I lectured with enthusiasm.  I showed the "wow" kind of demos like the collapsing can.  I lectured.  I had them do the lab where the students calculate the molar volume of  a gas.  I lectured on the gas laws.  I showed cool video demonstrations. I modeled the way to do calculations. I gave a quiz.  The students all failed the quiz. Do you see the pattern here?  I,I, I,I...I failed!  But with failure comes learning.

The need for meaningful experience in the process of learning

It started to hit me when I  asked my students.  "You know when you are washing dishes and put a cup full of air upside down...what happens?"

"We have dish washers teacher!"

I realized my students did not have many of the experiences that I had had growing up that implicitly taught me about gases.  So I decided to give them more experiences.  Perhaps the reason they did not do well on the abstract calculations was because they did not understand the concepts behind the calculations!

The next year I ordered a set of Boyle's Law Apparatus.  This is basically a syringe with a block on top and a block on the bottom so that you can stand it up freely.  It also allows one to stack weights, like books, on top.   It is very simple.

If you push on the blocks, you feel the invisible gas push back!

Finding Misconceptions

I then had the students draw diagrams, I called them "Black Box Diagrams", by which the student would have to draw what they imagined was what was going on inside the syringe at the molecular level.  What they drew astounded me.  I made them draw two diagrams, one with very little weight on the top block and one with lots of weight on the top block.  The students were all over the map.  Several drew the molecules as if they were balloons.  With little external pressure on the apparatus the ballon-like molecules were large and with much pressure the balloon-like molecules shrunk!  I had no idea they thought this way!  They did not grasp the fundamental concept that the molecules are not changing at all.  The molecules simply bump into each other more with increased pressure.  Then I asked the students, "What is in between these molecules you drew."  Almost unanimously I heard them answer, "Air!"  I would always get one or two students in a class that would say, "Nothing, it's empty space."  But again the majority proved that they had so many misconceptions about gases.  (Sort of like I too had misconceptions about teaching and learning.)

But I realized that I intuitively had an understanding of gases that I had built up over years of experience and guidance from my teachers and through struggle.  This made Charles' Law and it's algorithms in my mind  just a natural and direct consequence of that intuition.  My students did not have the same experiences.  So either they came to an understanding of gases that had some misconceptions or they simply made up their theories.  I suspect it was a little of both.  Nevertheless they had ideas of gases that stood as a roadblock to understanding the abstract concepts of Boyle's, Charles' and Gay-Lussac's laws and the uses of them in calculations.

Our current understanding of the brain backs this up.  We are constantly forming chemical connections between the proteins which make up our brain cells.  Although I think learning is more than just brain chemistry, connections between brain cells are necessary.  But what if a brain connection is made that represents a false idea?  Would that pose a problem to developing a correct understanding?  Is it possible that a misconception, "bad brain connection" must be disconnected and then reconnected in a new "good brain connection"?

If this is the case and much of brain research seems to say it is, then I need to have my students confront their misunderstandings about science (disconnect past connections in the brain) and form new connections that represent a more correct understanding of the science concepts.

Constructivist learning theory

This theory of learning is called in the academic world Constructivism.  Now some will go so far as to say that students construct reality or students construct knowledge.  I don't go that far.  Knowledge of reality is something outside of me that is correct whether I say so or not.  For example I don't construct knowledge of sulfuric acid.  The knowledge of the reality about sulfuric acid is what it is no matter what I think. I certainly can have misconceptions of acid.  That would have serious consequences.  But I do think we construct our understanding of of this knowledge about such things as molecules and sulfuric acid.

Teacher as facilitator

And so my students construct their own understanding of of the world.  I play a part in that by providing experiences for them, sharing my own experiences, giving lectures, asking them questions that make them think, etc.  But I believe one thing for sure: My students don't come to me with blank slates for minds that I just fill in for them with my words.  They have much prior understanding that I as a teacher must probe and understand so that I can help them understand abstract chemistry concepts. Often that probing reveals an incorrect understanding by one of my students.  I think my job at that point is to create a learning experience for them in which they come face to face with that misconception and help them struggle to gain a better understanding.  More and more I see my role as a facilitator of learning.  This takes the focus off of me.  The students' needs for forming good conceptions come to play a bigger role in what drive my teaching.

iPads help students construct knowledge

I think the iPads are a wonderful tool for students to develop their deeper understanding of scientific concepts.  You can almost see the connections forming in their brains as they plan their presentation and begin to develop an explanation for the chemistry behind the experiment.  This especially was visible to me when I had them produce a presentation in groups. Their wheels are really turning.  They want to get it right!  I have one student who produces high quality written lab reports that are very organized and the student gets good lab results, but sometimes this student does not quite explain the chemistry correctly.  I have witnessed this student get better at it as time has gone on.

The current assignment was to create a digital lab report for simple and fractional distillation.  In the presentation they had to explain the difference between the two types of distillation.  These concepts are pretty high level.  When writing a lab report, the discussion is pretty one-dimensional.  But with a screen cast, there is verbal explanation but also diagrams, pictures, and graphs that the student must use to explain the chemistry.    I think this is heavy construction!  Can anyone say "physical chemistry" without flinching?

Students own their learning

In Organic Chemistry I have wanted my students to create digital lab reports that demonstrate this deep understanding.  The biggest challenge for most has not been the chemistry, it has been learning how to use the iPads and the apps.  The term "digital native" might not be as good a description as I once expected.  But by the middle of the semester I think my students have arrived at the point where they are producing some high quality screencasts.  Usually we spend two days on distillation, one for simple and one day for fractional.  But this time I thought I would try to do both in one day and give the students the other three hour lab period for working on their screen cast.  The students made a good start on their screencasts in three hours but most needed more time.  I told them that they could come in any time I am on campus and check out an iPad.  I also gave them a week to complete the assignment.  Most of them either used their own iPads, I think six students either had their own at the beginning of the semester or convinced their mom and dad to get them one, or they borrowed one from a friend.  Of fifteen students only one was unable to complete turn in the screen cast URL on the due date.   I let this student have the extra time needed to get it done.  I could see the student was getting stressed out and taking it very seriously so I had no problem giving extra time.  Here are some of the best screencasts using the app Explain Everything.

You can see that each student took a different approach to explaining the difference between simple and fractional distillation.

Where to go from here

We are now well over half way through the semester.  I still think it is very important that the students write.  I want them to write well.  I tell them that they will probably forget much of the chemistry they learn in my class.  But there are two more important things I want them to learn.  The first is how to learn.  If I can equip them to be learners of difficult concepts on their own, what more could I want.  Well I also want them to be good communicators.  This involves both speaking, clearly articulating heavy concepts in a way that is understandable, and it involves writing, making a claim and backing it up with solid evidence.

I plan to have the students create their own lab reports for the caffeine extraction lab.  And I think I want to have them create one more report after that, perhaps a synthesis that involves explaining the mechanism.  I also want to give them at least one more "digital quiz" before the semester ends.  Now that they have spent so much effort learning the technology, I want them to feel like they can create  a good presentation of heavy chemistry easily.  Stay tuned.

Friday, October 11, 2013

iPads Get a Serious Workout!

Students create some fantastic screencasts!

Just before I first started out as a high school chemistry teacher I really thought I knew my material.  After all I had four years of college level chemistry behind me.  How could teaching high school  be that hard.  But I soon realized that passing a written test on some content, even with a good grade, is not anything close to explaining that concept at an understandable level to 35 energetic high school students in the period right after lunch.  I remember after a few days of my first teaching job saying to myself, "I really need to know this stuff a lot better!"  Some days I would be what we call "just 10 minutes ahead of the students."  On top of that I would get a question from a good student that would just stump me.  And then there was this one student that everyday kept saying, "Mr. Bradbury, I just don't understand!"  I must confess that I let that student exasperate me at times.  I would try one explanation and then another and then an example.  And the student just kept saying, "But I don't understand!"

Teaching a concept  requires a whole deeper level of understanding.  I have often wished I could give my students and oral exam where each one has to get up in front of the class and explain a concept to everyone else.  But then again that can be terrifying!  I remember when my Algebra 1 teacher made me get up in front of my whole class one late September school day during a typical late summer Southern California heat wave.  There was no air conditioning in classrooms back then.  I remember wilting under the pressure!  The only thing that saved me was that I could face the chalkboard and not my classmates.  But I could still feel the arrows of their stares on my back.  I wanted to climb under my desk.  I learned that I clearly did not understand Algebra!

Or was it that I was so full of fear in front of the class that I could not have performed even if I had all the necessary knowledge.

Nevertheless I think the best proof of deep understanding of a concept is being able to clearly articulate that concept in a very relaxed  conversational manner.  Screencasting allows just this.  One of the most difficult concepts in chemistry is Molecular Orbital Theory.  Understanding MO theory requires an accumulated knowledge, the ability to think abstractly, and the ability to see and draw three dimensional objects in two dimensions.

Screencasting can be an "equalizer"

The other thing that screencasting allows is a bit of privacy.  The students can really wrestle with concepts on their own.  Then they get to prepare their presentation, explain it and edit their explanation.   (Hey, as a teacher I take lots of time to prepare myself!)  The pressure is low.  What my colleagues and I are finding is that some of the best screencasts are produced by some of the "forgotten" students that sit quietly in the back of class hoping the teacher will never call on them.  Screencasting lets everybody have a chance to shine.

The Assignment

I decided to have my students create a screencast of their explanation of how to draw the hybridization box diagram and molecular orbital diagrams of a particular molecule or ion.  This is no easy task!  I must say it is a challenge for me to do it.  Even more it is a huge challenge to draw intricate diagrams on the iPad.  Here is the specific assignment.

1. Draw the box diagrams showing the ground state, excited state and  hybridized state for your assigned molecule or ion as shown in class.  Show the VSEPR structure.  Label all orbitals and show the relative energy of each.  State the type of hybridization (sp2 etc.)  

2. Draw the contour diagram for the assigned molecule. Label angles and label orbitals.  No credit will be given if drawn incorrectly.  Show orbital overlap correctly and show electrons.  Make all drawings large.  State the shape of the molecule.

Teacher Expectations Exceeded (Big Time!)

I had a three hour block of lab time.  Secretly I hoped that they would take about an hour and then we could continue working on our chemistry experiment.  But I was so surprised, yet again, by how seriously they took this assignment.  Some of them spent over an hour just planning and preparing how they were going to present their explanation.  Most of them had already completed the assignment on paper.  Some of the students went over the three hours and a few asked if they could keep the iPads during the 1 1/2 hour lunch break.  

They really put me to shame.  When I do a screencast that is say five minutes long I will spend no more than ten minutes on  the whole process.  Yes I am more experienced and so I take less planning, but when I saw what some of these students had done I must say I was overwhelmed.  When I compare their work to some of my screencasts I just want to crawl under a rock!  Here are a few that were created on Educreations.  (The Educreations posts are not as easy to embed in a blog as are ShowMe screencasts)  

Even if you have no idea what a molecular orbital is I think you will be very impressed by the work of these students.  They do a fantastic job of presenting. And this isn't just two plus two equals for this is very high level stuff.  What level on Blooms Taxonomy do you think this hits?

Link to 1st student created screencast on Educreations

Link to 2nd student created screencast on Educreations

Link to 3rd student created screencast on Educreations

These students really took pride in their work.  Some of them were very interested in my response to their work.  I think they felt like they really accomplished something intellectually significant.  I think they did!

iPad workout part 2:  Working on a digital lab report in Organic Chemistry

Last semester I told my students to create a digital lab report for my Organic Chemistry class.  At that time I had no class set of iPads and only one or two students had their own.  Most of the lab reports were created with a desktop or laptop.  But now with the iPads I think this could be a lot easier.  So for the distillation lab I told my students that they would be doing a digital lab report.  Everything that is covered in a regular written lab report must be presented in a screencast.  I recommended the app Explain Everything.  The big hurdle is that the students are not allowed to take home the iPads, although 4 or 5 have their own.  Usually we do two distillations, simple and fractional.  We do these distillations over two days.  But simple distillation often goes so fast, and the real hold up is setting up the apparatus.  This time I decided to do both distillations in one day.  They would have to work quickly, but they would only have to add the fractional column for the second distillation.  By doing this in one day it opened up a whole three hour lab period for working on the digital lab report.

Again, these students spent a good deal of time just prepping for their screen cast.  They uploaded text and pictures and diagrams.  I was impressed with their hard work.  In the end the three hours was not enough time for them to complete the lab report.  This was good for me to learn.  Normally they have to spend significant time outside of class working on the report anyway.  But many of them do not have iPads of their own.  (Although they seem to be appearing more and more as the semester goes on.  Way to go parents!)

Several students asked if they could come in the following week to work on the report.  So what I chose to do was give them one week to complete the digital report and send me the link.  I think some or many of them will come and borrow an iPad while I am on campus in another class or in my office hour.  So part 2 is to be continued...

Apps: Deeper into Molecular Modeling

Seeking and Finding: Two very good apps 

Molecular Orbital Modeling with Mols Editor

There are so many apps out there for modeling molecules.  For my General Chemistry class I want to build simple molecules and be able to look at them three-dimensionally.  I also want to be able to look at the molecular orbital contour diagrams.  So far the best app for this has been Mols Editor.  In previous posts I have shown the basic 3-D structure.  Now I want my students to draw those crazy contour diagrams.  These are hard to visualize and draw because they are so abstract and 3-D on top of that.  Mols editor lets you build the molecule and then there is an button to display the molecular orbitals.  Here is a picture of methane CH4.

You can see result of the SP3 hybridization of carbon and the overlap with the hydrogen 1s orbitals.  My students found this very helpful.  Of course even harder to draw and visualize are the double and triple bonded molecules.  Here is an example of ethene C2H6.

Because the app lets you rotate the molecule it is very easy to see and then attempt to draw. Why didn't they have this stuff when I was suffering through Gen Chem!!!  And I had to walk barefoot in the snow to school...  Well it makes it easier to teach anyway.

Bond Angles and R/S configuration and Spectra with iSpartan

I also want to show my students the bond angles.  Unfortunately Mols editor does not yet display bond angles.  At least I have not seen that yet.  But another app called iSpartan lets you draw the molecule and then it renders the molecule in 3-D.  It also allows you to analyze bond angles, R and S configuration and it shows the NMR and Infrared spectra.  Here is an example of finding the bond angle.

When you highlight three connected atoms (circled in above photo)  the app automatically calculates the bond angle.  As you can see in the picture of CBr4, which is tetrahedral, the bond angle is 109.5 which is correct.  I figured this app out a little too late for my current General Chemistry students, but maybe I will use it next semester.

If a particular atom is chiral the app tells if the arrangement is the R or S.  This is of particular interest to my Organic Chemistry students.  Here is a screenshot of bromo-chloro-fluro-iodomethane.  And you can see it is the S-configuration of it.

The last thing I want to point out about iSpartan is that you can also obtain the spectra of various molecules if they are in the available database.  Next week we are doing the steam distillation lab of cloves.  We will extracting Eugenol.  I am happy to say that this molecule is in the data base.  So my students can run the IR on their extracted sample and then compare it to the one on the app.

As you can see in the upper left corner, H-NMR and C-NMR also are available.

So for me, Mols Editor and iSpartan are two of the best apps for molecular modeling.  There are others that I will "review" later.  The one downside of iSpartan is the cost.  Currently it runs around $20.  Mols Editor has three versions.  One is free.  The one I am currently using is $1.99.  I find it to be quite adequate.  The third version has self-testing.  It costs $4.99.  I have not been able to find that as useful as I had hoped to yet. But these two apps really, to me anyway, really enhance my job of teaching a science that is 3-dimensional.  Chemistry teaching will never be the same once this type of tool catches on!

Friday, September 27, 2013

What Happens When Students' Hard Work on a Screencast is Lost!

Near iPad "Meltdown!" (But Everything Turned out ok)

I wanted to continue what I started with my General Chemistry Students last week when we created ShowMe screencasts of Lewis dot structures.  (See previous post)  This time I wanted the students to create  a screencast of Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion (VSEPR) diagrams.  I needed to lecture for about an hour and then I figured it would take about one and a half hours for the students to create their screencast.  I have the luxury of teaching the same students for lecture and lab.  I had some extra lab time that I could "steal" from in order to do the productions. I also continued to use the app Mols Editor to have the students draw in 3-D what they were drawing on paper.  The assignment I gave the students was to create a 5-7 minute screencast of a specific VSEPR structure and include a "screen capture photo" of their model made on Mols Editor. (I showed them how if you hold the two buttons on the iPad down at the same time and then release them it takes a picture of whatever is on the screen and sends it to the photos.) They were to work alone.  Students need lots of practice drawing these structures (you will soon see that turns out to be a prophetic statement).  There are specific rules and ways to draw in 2-D on paper what are in reality 3-D molecules. So I had them draw a quick sketch of their structure using the iPad and stylus and then come up and compare it with my answer key.  If they received approval they could go on with their screencast.  I suggested they use ShowMe like they did the previous week.  They seemed eager to do this assignment and off they went in the hallways, adjacent rooms and one student even set up her "studio" under her desk.  I gave them a little critique on their previous work.  One of the big problems is that the students just did not talk loudly enough.  Again this is a problem when you have a room full of students recording at the same time.  But they are figuring it all out.  This time I also gave them a rubric and told them that they would get up to ten points for their effort.  Here is the rubric:

Rubric for student created screen cast 10 points


  • Accuracy

3 points
  • Depth and quality of explanation

2 points

  • Clarity of voice  Appropriate volume, natural sounding, not scripted
2 points
  • Clarity of drawing

2 points
  • Use of color and effects (text, photos, arrows etc. where assigned or appropriate)  

1 points

Before I talk about the near disaster of a morning that it was I need to reflect on my rubric and grading in general.  Previously I wrote about assessment and evaluation.  Sometimes I wonder if we overgrade students.  What I mean is this.  Does every last piece of student work need to be graded?  What does it communicate to the students if we have to give points for everything?  What does it communicate to the students if often times or some times we don't give them any points at all for their work?  In this current situation I  was forced to wonder why I decided to give points.  Was it because I felt like I needed to motivate them?  Is telling students, "This assignment is worth 100 points or worth 10 points"  a good way to motivate students?  The reason why I am questioning my motives is because I think they would have given this project just as much effort had I not said anything about points.  I wonder if it would have taken pressure off of the students and give them more freedom to create. I wonder if I spoiled a sense in their mind that started the previous week when I just said "Here is the tool, go create!"  I wonder if I popped a bubble that I did not even know had been filled, and we all came back to the ground with, "Oh, that's right I am going to be judged on the quality of my work."  Had they for just a moment found the perfect joy of simply learning for its own sake?  I don't really know the answer to that.  On the other hand they may have needed a rubric to give them a set of standards to aim for.  I think I might need to ask them.

Nevertheless my students set off with much vigor.  

And then it started to happen.

I had a student come up and tell me that they were unable to log into ShowMe and that there screencast was not saved.  Then another student came up and said they could not upload to ShowMe and their work was lost.  Then another and then another.  As this was happening many of the students just went ahead and made another one and then another and another. When I finally decided to go onto the ShowMe website, it would not load  onto my browser.  It seemed as though there was a problem with the website and my students' work was repeatedly lost.  I felt pretty bad.  And the minutes ticked on.  We burned through the entire three hour lab period. None of the students would not give up.  I had to kick them out of class to go get lunch.  I had originally intended to do lab during the shorter lecture period.  But I decided I wanted to give the students a chance at success.  

I was not sure how they would respond.  I could tell some were getting pretty frustrated.  So it was time for some silly humor!

Earlier in the week I met with my son Sam's 6th grade teacher for the quarterly parent teacher conference.  She told me about an app called Tellagami:

What an app!  You type in text and an instant animation is created.  You get to choose things like gender, hair color and voice but the animated person speaks whatever was typed.  There is a typed character limit of around 500.   Here is the quick, goofy Tellagami I created to tell my students what I had decided to do:


You can also go to this URL to see it.  It is worth it, I assure you.  But I warn you, you will want to download the app and start making these animations yourself!

My wife Lisa thinks it sort of looks like me.  I even chose a downcast emotion. Can you tell?

So we burned up the hour and 45 minute lecture period.   After about three and a half hours, much longer than expected, all but two students sent me a link to their screencast.  The last two spent about another 45 minutes trying to upload.  In all some students performed their work up to 5 or 6 times!  I guess they got lots of practice.  I was impressed with their persistence for sure.  Seventeen students stayed with ShowMe and nine decided to use the similar app Educreations. As before I sent them a URL of a Google form in which to put the link to their screencast.  I also ask them questions like "Rate the experience" or "Rate the use of the app." Even after a stressful day for me the students still seemed quite positive.  There was only a small number of students, about two,  that were very frustrated or negative. One said, "I used to like iPads, now I hate them."  But she had a wry smile.  So after a day in which I felt like I as a teacher did very little "teaching of chemistry" I was quite worn out.

Here is an example of the day's work creating VSEPR Diagrams