Thursday, August 16, 2012

#ModChem Day 15

Modeler's Log, Day 15--

"I'm so sad to see #ModChem12 end!"
Way back on day 1, some of us had no knowledge of what Modeling Instruction even was, while others had previously completed workshops in physics and thought we knew what to expect here in the chemistry workshop. Here we are now--three weeks from where we started; 15 days of instruction and nine full units of chemistry models later. After completing the Modeling Chemistry Institute at Mansfield University, made possible by Corning Inc., I can confidently say that all of the participants have left better teachers than we came. Everyone came away with something meaningful; it's sad to see the workshop come to a close. 

This last workshop day did not include any new content, because we finished the last of the nine units on day 14. Though everyone would have loved to get into more chemistry content, today was about tying up loose ends and reflecting on the workshop. The conclusion of the workshop started by activating our American Modeling Teachers Association and getting a brief tour of the website. We subsequently moved on to one final questioning simulation, and then we put the whiteboards away for the last time.

Our final whiteboarding practice session include more practice with the different stoichiometry applications from unit 9. Everyone acknowledge how much more comfortable we felt with the whiteboarding process at this point. We were now able to give some helpful feedback even about the process itself. The subtleties of whiteboard questioning were now within perspective. From this last session, we noted that it is important to ask open-ended questions, not just open-spaced questions. We found this subtle difference in how we viewed leading questions. What we thought were leading students to discuss an idea more were actually just leading them to a single answer via fill-in-blank questions from the teacher, e.g., "The quantity that helps us to relate the number of grams to the number of moles of a substance is ________?" This doesn't work very well. Instead, consider a more constructed response prompt: "How do we relate the how much to the how many for a substance?" The other two important points from our feedback pertained to allowing proper 'wait time' for student responses before following up and cautioning teachers about answering their own questions. Neither of these practices foster good whiteboard discussions.

Next, we cleaned off the whiteboards and tidied up the lab for the last time in this workshop and it was time to take our post-test of the Assessment of Basic Chemistry Concepts (ABCC). After looking at the questions on the ABCC for a second time after learning all the models in each unit, I have a much better sense of how my own thinking about matter and energy have changed. This assessment should be given as early in the year as possible, especially before you begin teaching the content of the modeling chemistry units, to students. The objective here is not for the assessment to be part of students' grade in the course but to yield a measurement of how much they learned over the course of the term and how well the instruction succeeded in steering students to correct lines of thinking. My experience in modeling physics using the Force Concept Inventory (FCI), as well as discussion of the chemistry concepts inventory, has helped me foresee how the ABCC will work into my chemistry teaching. At the end of the first week of school, I will give the assessment to students, it will be scored to see what their preconceptions are, but the grade will not be counted. 

Then, after we have finished all nine units in the curriculum, students will again take the assessment (not to be counted into their grade) and the results compared to their first attempt. The difference between the pre-test and post-test scores on the concept inventory can help see student gains in learning, e.g., if a student scores 15/27 on pre-test and 21/27 on post-test. To dive deeper into the data, a "percent yield" of sorts can be determined for each student. This is where you take a student's actual score change compared to their possible score change. Starting with a pre-test score, say 15/27 questions answered correctly, generate a 'potential gain' as the difference from highest possible score--in this case, a 12 question difference. Then, upon completing the post-test, say the student scored 21/27. You can determine that their 'actual gain' was 6 out of a possible 12 potentially, or 50% score change "yield." This more in-depth examination of scores keeps the playing field level. It compares students to themselves instead of to each other. This way two students who each had a 3-question improvement can be compared. For example, let's say that one student scored a 4/27 on the pre-test and had a 3-question improvement while the other scored 24/27 on pre-test and had a 3-question improvement. With just the change in score, the comparison would be meaningless, but with a comparison to what each student could have scored, the 3-question improvement becomes much more telling.

After we finished with the ABCC, it was time to do course evaluations, which interestingly had two components: 1) rating the quality of the workshop itself; and, 2) rating your pedagogical content knowledge in a variety of categories before and after the workshop. The latter of these two components really encouraged you to reflect on what you learned in the workshop and how it will influence your teaching. It had questions asking you to rate the frequency with which you used a variety of teaching techniques, e.g., student-designed experiments, textbook reading & problem sets, discussions, lectures, etc. both before and after the workshop. This way of surveying teachers could really help a person to realize just how much their teaching has been impacted by this workshop.

After I finished my survey, there were a few minutes until the rest of the group was done; so, I did some reflecting about my own teaching practice and how this workshop has influenced what I will do in the future. I thought about the big take-aways from #modchem2012. For each participant, this list might be different, but for me, the following are my top five hallmarks of the workshop:
  • Modeling instruction is the coolest and most comprehensive student-centered pedagogy in science
I've always been a proponent of helping students to discover (or rediscover) things for themselves in a class. What fun is there in just telling them when they can be put in a situation to draw their own conclusions? I was unsure prior to this workshop of how this could be done with chemistry concepts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that everything from atomic particles to stoichiometry to thermochemistry to the gas laws could be developed with students without having to resort to telling.
  • Teaching energy through storage and transfer representations (see day 6)
The treatment of energy in modeling instruction is somewhat uniform across the disciplines. It is heavily influenced by Gregg Swackhamer's Cognitive Resources for Understanding Energy. It was very nice to see how the energy associated with chemical reactions, temperature shifts, and phase changes was treated together. This kept energy connected to matter, as it should be, and made the relationships between physical and chemical changes easy to explain in terms of energy.
  • Focus on process, not just answers
All too often, the study of chemistry is reduced to problem-answer situations, mostly of the quantitative nature; thus, chemistry class often looks to students like math class--fragmented, based on calculations, and all about the answers. Though calculations are involved, and though math is a tool to be used in chemistry, this is far from the whole story. In treating chemistry teaching and learning like math class, and in focusing so much on the answers, students can lose sight of the overarching concepts, themes, and physical context of chemistry. Modeling instruction seeks to shift the paradigm from answer-focused to process-oriented teaching and learning. The belief is that with a focus on the process, the answers will naturally come; in contrast, however, when the focus is on the answers, the process is obscured. 
  • Sequence in the chemistry curriculum follows a historical timeline
Most chemistry textbooks, and even more chemistry curricula, will treat the historical timeline of chemistry and the development of the model of the atom in a single unit or chapter. It is typically taught, if at all, as a set of bullet points on a timeline with little emphasis on its importance to the study of chemistry. After the respects are (briefly) paid to the chemists who have gone before, attention turns to concluding the whole of chemistry based not on empirical evidence but on rote fact. The sequence of the units in the modeling curriculum framework honors the historical development, not simply out of reverence, because it yields an empirical context for the understanding of chemical concepts.
  • Discrepant events
I love using discrepant events in my physics classes, and the Motivational Power of Discrepant Events has been chronicled in many disciplines, but it wasn't clear how I would be able to use this powerful teaching technique in chemistry. We saw several in the workshop, and there are plenty of resources for them out on the Internet. If you want to find out about discrepant events in chemistry, you can get some inspiration from Steve Spangler and some other ideas are available in the resources of this inquiry-based chemistry page. Ultimately, discrepant events only hold power if they are student-centered and allow pupils to engage with the event in their own personal way so as to reflect on their preconceptions. The conceptual change model is very explicit about students exposing and confronting their beliefs.
There once was a master at discrepant event teaching in science, and he had a television show. Don Herbert, a.k.a. Mr. Wizard, had perhaps the most well-known reputation for science in the 20th century. Mr. Wizard does a classic discrepant event with water volume that could fit into any chemistry course, and it of course is available on YouTube. Now, keep in mind that whoever posted this video on YouTube decided to do a little model deployment of their own with Mr. Wizard's lesson, applying the concept to polar ice caps melting, but feel free to appreciate the clip for its originally intended purpose. For your viewing pleasure, here it is:

Looking back on the workshop, it took some time for everyone to find their groove with the content and pedagogy; but in the end, everyone seemed to have caught on to what Modeling Instruction is trying to accomplish with chemistry. All of our questions were answered and finally, we can say, "now, we get it!"


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