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Group Chemistry

October 2, 2009

BALTIMORE -- With groups of students chatting around small, circular tables, the Chemistry Discovery Center at the University of Maryland Baltimore County looks more like a café than a laboratory. There are no beakers or Bunsen burners -- the students don’t even have notebooks or pencils.

There is, however, an experiment going on here. In 2005, professor William R. LaCourse, who chairs the chemistry department at UMBC, jettisoned the exclusively lecture-based curriculum in favor of a pedagogical technique he calls “discovery learning” -- a style that emphasizes interactivity, cooperation, and personal responsibility, while using classroom technologies to help monitor student performance in real time.

After four years, LaCourse says, the experiment is turning out positive results. Since he opened the lab, the pass rate for chemistry 101 students has leaped from 71.2 percent to 85.6 percent, even as the minimum score required for a passing grade has climbed slightly. “We’re doing grade deflation, not grade inflation,” LaCourse says.

UMBC has long hung its hat on its strength in graduating STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) scholars. And while LaCourse said there is no particular recruiting campaign centered on the discovery lab, enrollment and retention in the chemistry program is up. “It just happened that it fit in nicely with what [the university was] already trying to accomplish," he said. “...It has served as a tool to retain students within the STEM areas, and possibly -- though I don’t have any evidence of this -- recruit them into it.”

Here’s how it works: Students in a class are divided into groups of four, and each is assigned a role. One is in charge of making calculations; one is in charge of writing out the group’s solutions in dry-erase marker on a whiteboard, which is positioned next to each group table; one is in charge of logging the group’s work in a blog, where it can be reviewed later by the students for study or by the instructor or teaching assistants for assessment; and one serves as the manager, who is in charge of overseeing the collaboration and making sure everyone remains on task. These roles rotate every four weeks, so that everybody does each job over the course of a semester.

The idea, says LaCourse, is to force students to rely on one another in order to solve a problem. There are no pens or paper allowed, and nobody is permitted to take over responsibility outside of his or her role. If the student in charge of running the numbers does not know how to make a calculation, or if the scribe does not know how to notate it properly, other members of the group may not commandeer the calculator or the marker (there are roving TAs policing such violations); rather, they must explain the process to their group mates.

“It’s more interactive,” says freshman Alex Engelmann, taking a break from his scribe duties during a lab session on Monday. “We work together more.”

Engelmann and his group are working on a worksheet on isotopes in preparation for an upcoming exam, their first of the semester. “We’re not allowed to have paper or pens or anything out. It’s just working with each other and using each other’s knowledge to solve the problems they give us,” says Jefferson Jackson, a junior. “I think it’s better, because if I don’t know something, someone else may and they can relate it better to me than a book would be able to, or a teacher teaching 300 or 400 kids.”

This sort of student-centered approach is nothing new. LaCourse says he drew initially from Process-Oriented Guided Inquiry-Based Learning, or POGIL -- a progressive pedagogical technique that seeks to break down the traditionally didactic style of lecture courses. But UMBC’s “discovery learning” does not eliminate the lecture entirely, as many POGIL courses do. Instead, LaCourse and his colleagues use the lab sessions as a supplement to the lectures. “In the lecture, for like one hour [the lecturer] goes on about the stuff,” says Priya Ayyala, a junior. “But here, it’s more hands-on.”

The hands-on approach is one of the discovery lab’s central concepts. Despite its anarchical appearance, the session is rigidly moderated by the instructor and her assistants -- a setup made possible by the lab’s use of classroom technology.

Diana S. Hamilton, the chemistry lecturer presiding over this particular session, stands at a desk near the front of the room in front of a computer monitor, where she is able to see and control everything that appears on the monitors (“They’re not supposed to be using the onscreen calculator!” she says, closing the accessory remotely on an unsuspecting student). That means no recreational Web-surfing, e-mail, Facebook, or any of the other incidental hazards of allowing students to use computers in class. The prohibition on pens and paper, meanwhile, eliminates traditional distractions such as doodling.

“Trying to get the attention of 72 people is nearly impossible,” says LaCourse. “We get away from distractions. We want them to focus. I think in society today people have a hard time focusing… So we make it real simple.”

Outfitting the lab cost UMBC about $85,000, says LaCourse. But all things considered, “It’s very money-saving,” he says. “The paper cost to do 1,200 students a semester -- with multiple, elaborate documents -- was horrendous. Now we send it all out to the computers, they send it all out to their dorm rooms, and then we clean off the computers and start the next class. So it’s completely paperless.”

Jackson, one of the students, said LaCourse and his lieutenants run a tight ship (“Just a tad,” he chuckles) -- the manager of each group is required to sign a contract agreeing that he or she will see make sure everybody follows the rules, or else incur penalties. They also maintain a very strict attendance policy, where even a few missed sessions can nudge a student’s grade down the alphabet.

But Jackson and his group mates say having Big Brother looking over their shoulders is something they don’t mind. “This is basically just making us do our homework,” he said. “Like, if we had homework to do, this would be it. We’re just working through the problems and doing the calculations, so that’s a much better reinforcement than just reading something.”

 

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