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Good Chemistry: Active learning in the Science Classroom

As a second year teacher in 2008, I had the opportunity to observe a class that would later shape the way I approach education and curriculum at Pacific Ridge School. It was a freshman physics course at North Carolina State University, and it was unlike any college or high school class I had ever seen. Over the course of a 90-minute period, Professor Robert Beichner addressed the collective class for just 10 minutes. For the rest of the class time, his 99 students were engaged in a program the NCSU Physics Education Department calls SCALE-UP (Student Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside Down Pedagogies).

SCALE-UP, originally developed by Beichner for use in undergraduate physics but now utilized by many universities in a variety of disciplines, gives credence to the popular adage that “the best way to learn something is to teach it” – and that’s what I witnessed students do that day – teach and learn from one another under a professor’s watchful eye.

Rather than traditional lecture halls, SCALE-UP-inspired classes consist of small tables to facilitate group work and collaboration. As groups of students work through problems using computer software, erasable whiteboards, lab equipment and the like, the teacher is free to walk around the room and engage with students on a more personal level. At the end of a work session, students from each group report their methodologies and findings to the class. Not only does this method encourage students to think and work like scientists, but it gives the instructor a much greater sense of each student’s challenges and growth.

I left the NCSU class feeling enthusiastic about the kind of results this style of learning could produce; higher level thinking, greater emphasis on development and exploration, and engagement beyond passive listening were just a few possible benefits. I started implementing SCALE-UP and other forms of active learning in my classroom immediately, and have been using them with great results ever since.

In the SCALE-UP method of active learning, students’ success requires preparation outside of the classroom. I address this by creating video tutorials that students are asked to watch in addition to reading the textbook material. These videos take the place of lectures for those concepts I feel students can master without greater in-class discussion. Students also prepare by reading additional assigned texts. During class, my students work together through problems and experiments, while I traverse the room to observe and discuss their progress with them.

One example of the SCALE-UP method in action is “Mendeleev for a Day,” an activity I use to introduce chemistry students to the periodic table. For homework, the students are asked to read an article called “The Birth of the Elements” to learn about how elements are created in stars and supernovas. They are also asked to research several early models of organizing the periodic table such as Dobereiner’s law of triads and Newlands law of octaves. In class, the students consider simple patterns and are asked to group a variety of shapes into patterns that incorporate three variables – shape, size and color.  Once they have completed that activity, they are assigned the challenge Mendeleev faced – namely, the task of organizing the elements into patterns with periodicity according to seven known properties. They then share their organizational techniques with one another. The resulting class discussion of how Mendeleev organized the elements opens the students’ eyes to the elegance and genius in his periodic trends. Often, students enter the activity believing they will have to memorize the table, but through active learning they experience the periodic table in a much more useful way, by interpreting and unraveling it.

Another method of active learning I employ in my classes is guided inquiry. In the guided inquiry format students can come in with little background knowledge and still develop a strong conceptual understanding of the material during the lesson. This method first introduces the students to an experimental technique and then asks them to solve a problem by applying the techniques they have just learned. In my AP chemistry class, for example, students are asked to determine the percentage of copper in a sample of brass. First, the students learn the experimental technique of spectroscopy by determining how the absorption of a blue copper ion solution varies with wavelength. Then the students devise a method to extract the copper from brass by using the appropriate chemical reaction, and then determine its concentration with the newly acquired skill of spectroscopy. The students are learning new experimental techniques, designing experimental methods by synthesizing new skills with established concepts, and analyzing their data graphically. In the end, the students report their data in a formal laboratory report that mirrors the format of a scientific journal article.

As I further incorporate these techniques into my teaching at Pacific Ridge, I am assured of their effectiveness by the positive results reported in science education literature and by the response of students in my classes. One of the most convincing articles I have encountered was published two years ago by Robert DeHaan (Robert L. DeHaan,Teaching Creative Science Thinking, Science 16 December 2011: 1499-1500). In the article, DeHaan discusses the importance of creative thinking in science and the need to promote its growth in the classroom. The article delineates two types of thinking needed for success in scientific exploration: associative (divergent) and analytical (convergent). DeHann points specifically to active learning as a platform that promotes both types of thinking, thus fostering higher levels of creativity, as well as skills in collaboration, communication, application and exploration. In many ways, the benefits of implementing active learning in science classrooms echo the benefits of Harkness discussions in other disciplines at Pacific Ridge.
My primary goal with active learning is to not only improve my students’ understanding of chemistry, but also their ability to think critically and creatively about the world outside the classroom.

Justin McCabe, Science