Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mixed Experience with Net Ionic Equations

Generally, my thinking is that iPads will reinforce a skill but in a much deeper way than just practicing the skill on a homework assignment.  This did not turn out to be the case when I had students create screencasts of "net ionic equations."

I think that writing a net ionic equation really synthesizes many different skills and concepts learned in a chemistry class.  The students have to demonstrate that they know how to write symbols and formulas, balance equations, predict products, know the solubility rules, distinguish between strong and weak acids.  In other words net ionic equations are one of those things that "ties it all together."  So what a perfect type of skill to demonstrate on a screencast.  I assigned my students each a different equation.  They had to write the "molecular", "total ionic" and "net ionic" equations.  As they wrote they had to audibly explain what they were writing.  This is no different from other screencast assignments.  My thinking was that the assignment would make them learn the skill so deeply that they would all "ace" the exam.  This did not happen at all.  Here is a typical problem:

"Hydrochloric acid is added to sodium fluoride."  Here is a screencast of a student performing this skill.

This is the type of problem that gives students fits because you are given a strong acid HCl and it produces a weak acid HF.  In the total ionic equation H + (aq) and Cl- (aq) are written separately because HCl completely ionizes in aqueous solution.  Conversely HF(aq) is written in its molecular form because it mostly stays unionized as molecules.  Students have a difficult time with this.

Here is another example screencast of net ionic equations.  In that example a precipitate is formed.

Students tended to explain the concepts and write them out correctly in their screencast. But when it came to the exam a very large number of students did not receive a passing grade.  In fact it was well over half that did not pass.  I was very surprised.  During a subsequent laboratory time I called many students up individually and asked them why this happened.  I showed them their screencast that was done correctly and then I showed them their exam with a similar problem and it was done incorrectly.  In several cases on the screencast the students correctly showed the weak acid written as a molecule and even noted clearly that it was a weak acid but then on the exam they wrote the acid in ionic form.  Many shook their heads. Many were unable to explain why this happened but almost all quickly and clearly understood their mistake.  It is very hard for me to come up with a clear explanation of this.  I will say it again. I totally expected that the screencast would have driven home the concept.

I have to come up with something so here it is.  This was a six week class in the summer.  This particular summer we moved the concept of net ionic equations to an earlier time in the curriculum calendar.  I think that the students just did not have enough time to learn these concepts deeply enough. I think they got it well enough to explain in a screencast (They had about 2 hours to do the screencast) but not well enough for a pressure filled exam.  This was a good lesson for me to learn.  iPads are not the be all end all.  They are just a very good tool that will help, but they are not magic.

Good News in the End!

I did something I have never done before.  The test results were so bad, among the worst I had seen in college, that I actually gave a make-up test.  The students knew the gravity of the situation and also knew how much I was bending over backward to help them succeed.  They did better.

The students got a third chance on the final exam.  Net ionic equations show up on the final.  The difficulty of the problems is the same.  This time all but one student passed the part of the final exam which includes net ionic equations.  My thinking is that for them to learn it deep enough for a high stakes, high pressure exam, they need much time and multiple modes of reinforcement.  Do I plan to use iPads again this new semester in my Elementary Chemistry class to practice net ionic equations?  Absolutely!  I am just not going to expect the iPads to do something impossible.

Friday, August 15, 2014

iPads from a Parent's Viewpoint

A Small Revolution is Happening

I have been writing about the use of iPads in the college chemistry class.  But I am also a parent of three kids.  Two are now in college and my youngest, Sam, is just entering Junior High.  I think my youngest child's education will end up being very different from that of my oldest two.  For my oldest two they did not use iPads at all.  But  iPads were used quite a lot in my youngest's last year of elementary school and now they are taking over the educational process at his junior high.   I would like to write about my initial thoughts as a parent observing the use of iPads in my child's schools.

Elementary School Experience 

I have had the privilege to be fairly involved in my kids' education in Fullerton, California.  My wife Lisa is a former teacher that decided to stay home when our children were born.  When they entered elementary school she was offered a one day a week job as a "rotation" teacher in kindergarten.  She works half a day every wednesday in the garden.  The students rotate through different activities on these days which includes time in the garden.   My wife also subs about two other days a week in the same school.  This has allowed me access to the classroom.  My wife and I have tried to be very supportive of the teachers and get to know them over the last 15 years.  Besides, the teachers are always very eager to have someone come in and do an occasional chemistry lesson.  So I get to talk with the teachers and ask them questions about curriculum and their use of technology.

This last year, 2013-14, many of the teachers were given the opportunity to use iPads extensively in their classrooms.  I think that the Fullerton Elementary district is a very technology-thinking district.  The Fullerton High School district is quite another matter.  At the end of the 2012-13 school year the teachers were told that they could get a classroom set of iPads if they were willing to go to a multi-week iPad training in the summer.  Sam's sixth grade teacher was one of these teachers.

The Trade-off

There is a cost with using iPads.  Sixth grade is the year of world history and ancient civilizations.  The two sixth grade teachers at my kids' school are fantastic.  Previous to this last year the kids would spend weeks building an Egyptian tomb.  They would decorate it with Egyptian style art.  Then during open house parents would get to walk through this elaborate tunnel that started in one classroom, snaked outside, and ended up in the other sixth grade classroom.  It was really remarkable.  These classrooms were the most popular on campus the night of open house.  I remember getting claustrophobic as I walked through the semi-dark catacombs.  It added to the authenticity...but not this year.

This year the Egyptian tomb was was the "extra" that got bumped out and replaced by iPads.  I think the iPads engaged the students, but in a different way.  I am not making a judgement one way or the other: massive Egyptian art projects or iPads?  I am not sure of the right answer.  And maybe now that the teachers have a year under their belt they will put more of the Egyptian art back in.  What they replaced the passed projects with was in itself good.  My son talked a lot about using QR codes in his class.  I thought it was just a fad...until I went to open house.  In the classroom that night were the usual displays of student creations such as reports, poems, art etc.  But this time the student work was accompanied by a QR code.   Parents could then take their smart phone or iPad and click on the QR code.  The device would then be directed to an online google drive folder which contained a spoken narrative by the student discussing their work.  Or in some cases the student made a video commentary on their work.  I was very impressed by this.  So there was clearly a trade off.  There was no Egyptian tunnel, a tradition going back many years at Raymond Elementary.  But what we got instead was a recorded guided tour throughout the year of what the students had learned.  I thought it was very personal and it demonstrated the depth of knowledge that a simple poem or picture on the wall could not do.  I was so impressed that I plan on using this QR code method this next semester in my Organic Chemistry lab!

The New Experience of Learning in Junior High

My son Sam started Junior High on Monday and Back-to-School night was on Thursday (last night) of the first week.  Every student received a take home iPad.  Here are my initial impressions and observations, which will of course develop over time.  His first class is math.  The new world hit us right off the bat.  There are no math textbooks!  Wow!  Homework too is online.  From there the classes varied in their iPad use.  Some teachers used textbooks but will use the iPads for assignments.  The teachers seemed very comfortable with this new way.  At least that is the way they were on the outside.  One of his teachers mentioned that she spent part of the summer at training on the iPads.  So I think that is the key: training.  I think those teachers that have been trained will have a much better chance of succeeding.  It has been four years since my middle kid has been in Junior High to now my youngest being a student there.  I saw many of the same teachers.  My first impression is that they made the transition to iPads look pretty smooth.  But there is another issue, and that is the Common Core.  Not only is the technology changing but the curriculum is changing too.  I wonder if the teachers will just get overwhelmed.  Here are my impressions.  The teacher that was still using the textbook (language arts and social studies) was using the same book.  In other words she is not getting a new Common Core book.  Further more both her and my son's math teacher made off hand comments that Common Core was not really that big of a change.  I personally think it is quite a big change and was surprised to hear these teachers say what they said.  Nevertheless, I think it is a lot to ask of teachers to make tremendous changes in what they teach and the way they teach it all at once.  I plan on paying close attention as time goes on.  These seem to be wonderful caring teachers.  I hope they don't get completely overwhelmed by everything.

One last observation and comment.  In Fullerton the High School district is separate from the Junior High and Elementary District.  And boy is there a huge digital divide.  I am flabbergasted at how little the high schools use technology.  I know several of the teachers, some are close friends.  I also have worked with the Superintendent and talked with the principal.  They are all wonderful people.  They care about their students and they care about learning!  They also have the highest character.  So let me start with that.  But when they talk about technology they throw around the terms like flipping or iPads in a way that you can tell they know the buzz words but don't have a mastery of them at all.  It is going to be very interesting when all of these kids show up from junior high  speaking a digital language, having had their brains re-wired and they get handed a textbook.  It will be very interesting to watch.  The high school district spent their money on not furloughing the teachers during the recent economic downturn.  The elementary district did furlough and spent more money on technology.  Also at Raymond elementary the principal decided to spend money on iPads instead of spending it on smaller class size.  At least that is what I have been told.  It is all a trade off either way...

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...