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Using 'expert' software to Improve student problem solving ability


Brian J Pankuch
Department of Chemistry, Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016

Note: This article was scanned using OCR from the Fall 1991 CCCE Newsletter. Please contact us if you identify any OCR errors.
          I've been using 5 chemistry programs for the Macintosh, which are very helpful with our freshman chemistry courses. During the first week of class I take each lecture group (usually under 35 students } down to our Mac lab which has 18 or more Macintoshs -all running the Mac tour diskette. This diskette comes with every Mac and is a basic introduction to using the Mac and the mouse. The first 15 minutes of the tour show the techniques needed to use the chemistry programs-m.ostly using the mouse to move the cursor on the screen and clicking on buttons. I pair students who have had experience using a mouse with students who have not. As expected some students finish the tour faster and are individually helped getting into the chemistry programs which are on a shared hard disk. A total of 25 -35 minutes suffices to explain how to use the Mac, 1he mouse, and the chemistry programs.
          In the 2 years that the programs have been available students have tried using the programs a number of ways. The most· successful is when 2-3 students each using separate Mac's next to each other, help each other and compete for the best score.
The 5 programs cover topics that are spread through the first semester of any introductory chemistry course. The major topics are:
1) scientific notation and rounding; (An easy program to start students on.)
2) conversions between English and metricunitsofvolume, mass, length;
3) gramsA -> molesA, gramsA -> molesA->molesB -> gramsB, in many combinations and with chemical equations;
4) molecules, moles, molarity, and limiting reactants:
5) gas laws- Boyles' Law, Charles Law, Combined Gas Law, Ideal Gas Law, with density and molecular mass.
          The first 2 programs are easier to use and provide a gradual learning curve for those not familiar with using computers or chemistry. Students learn to analyze a problem and pick out the pertinent information needed to solve it. They use problem solving techniques (dimensional analysis or unit factor method) that are widely applicable to all sorts of fundamental problems in engineering and science. They learn to use important conversions between many sets of units. and to set up problems in a consistent, understandable manner like an expert. Many are very pleased to find that they enjoy setting up and solving chemistry problems - when they minimize errors and concomitant frustration.
Advantages of using a mini expert system that makes up and solves its own problems:
1) An almost unlimited number of problems are available.The system makes up its own problems using random number generators. (A random number generator is just a small program which will generate different or random numbers of a certain size.} As a result there is an almost unlimited number of problems.
2) The format is the very familiar multiple choice, a question and four answers. The four answers are in buttons. Students only need to learn how to click on buttons to make their choice ( much simpler than learning to use many of the more complicated parts of Copy and Paste).
3) For weaker students a multilevel tutorial is available to provide specific help in each step of the setup and solution. The system tracks where a user is in the problem and what error they have made. When an error is made the system immediately provides specific help for the particular step in the specific problem the student is solving. This minimizes the frustration of making-an error in the beginning of the problem and not realizing the error until many steps later when the answer doesn't agree with the one in the book.
4) Better students can review many types of questions at many levels of difficulty. The most common student errors are included in the four answers provided. The student automatically gets an explanation of the mistake they made. By clicking on each wrong answer, the user gets an explanation of why each one is incorrect. The student can see the most common mistakes and avoid repeating them.
5) At every step students are provided with 4 answers or choices. The setup and solution of problems requires constant interactive choice from students. If their choice is wrong help is automatically provided. This help is very specific to the particular step in the particular problem.
6) General problem solving help and program help are always available to the student which reduces student frustration.
7) Using the programs cuts the.time students spend randomly putting numbers through a calculator and thinking a problem has been solved when you magically agree with the answer in the book. The emphasis in each type of problem is to set up each problem using the same general dimensional analysis. Comparison of test results showed that students who used the programs did significantly better than those who did not on the type of question covered by the programs. CHE 005 is a noncredit course taken by students who have never had chemistry, had it many years ago, or who do poorly on our placement test. CHE 111-112 is for science and engineering majors: CHE 105, CHE 113-114 for health students. (Questions similar to those covered by the programs, Mac type questions. represented 30-60°/o of each test)
Results shown in Table 1 fell into several categories:
1) Students who spend more than an hour (average about 6 hours} with the programs get virtually perfect scores on type questions, covered by the programs, and a wide range of scores on the complete test.
2) Students who spent less than an hour with the programs usually did slightly better than nonusers but not nearly as well as those who spent over an hour.
3) Excellent students who didn't use the program and did well on all the questions. The same material is covered in the text and lecture. It would seem that someone who is bright and can get the information through the usual channels would not need extra help from the programs.Note the CHE 113 class, which was the best group of students I've had in a decade, did not show as impressive performance gain as the other more average classes. A number of CHE 113 students told me that they were able to get the material from my lectures and their textbook.
4) Weaker students who didn't use the program failed the test.
          I was impressed that over half the class would spend 6 or more hours using a program. Students were asked (on an unsigned questionnaire) what advice they would give a friend taking the course if the friend wanted to do well in the course. Ninety three percent of the students stated that using the programs would be the biggest help in learning the course material. The different levels of help and problem difficulty evidently give students a positive learning experience.
The programs proved even more effective than I had expected when I designed and wrote them.
          Preliminary testing with high school students show the. programs to be useful atthis level. The following windows give you an example of the tutorial a student can choose. Every problem in each program has its own specific help available.
The previous windows show a few of the steps available in the tutorial part of the programs. The student always selects the next step from four choices. The process is very rapid. As you can see correct or incorrect choices result in specific help for the problem being done. Students are nudged toward mapping each step of the probe 1m before they begin its solution. Next using the map unit conversions from one set of units to another is done. Finally the numbers for the conversions are entered. The highlighted boxes lead the student thru step by step with choice and help available at each step. The student has complete choice on how much detail they want.
As you may have gathered I'm quite pleased with the improvement in performance of my students brought about by using the programs. Let me remind you that I teach at a community college and our average student , now 28 years old, may be different from yours. If you have students who want to do well and are wiling to put in some time these programs work. In particular they allow the student to concentrate on the logic chemists use to solve problems, and to work up gradually to more difficult problems.
Technical information: The student programs have been tested on Mac cix, Mac llx, Macll, SE PLUS, and an Appletalk network. Apple system software 6.03 or greater is recommended. No IBM or Apple II versions are available. The usual price is $35/program. Mention you heard
about them in this Newsletter and the price is $25/program or $95 for all five. Handling and shipping is $4.50 for one or ailS. Send a check (no PO orders please) to EdExpert, RR 1 Box 86, Califon, NJ 07830.
In this article I reflect back on the ten year history of the IBM PC and its compatibles in the Chemistry Department at Ripon College. Despite -the fact that the Macintosh interface is easier to use and graphic displays are superior in many aspects, we chose IBM compatible PC's for a variety of reasons including:
1. Our graduates found that the dominant machine was the IBM compatible.
2. IBM compatibles were much less expensive.
3. Scientific instruments frequently came with an IBM compatible and almost never with a Mac. However, the gap is closing between the two computer types and perhaps in a few years the question will be mute. A plate of mostly graphic output is included with this article to illustrate typical uses.
Hardware : Today, the Commodore Pet's and Apple It's are retired and the first Mac, two 386 PC's, and a HP Laser Jet Ill are on order. Presently, our 8086 machines are being replaced with 386 machines. The 386 machines are configured with 2 megabytes of RAM, VGA, a coprocessor, and a 40-60 meg harddisk. The co-processor is needed to speed up graphics which are increasiningly important. Two years ago a 40 meg disk was viewed as lifetime storage. Forty meg is now the minimum because programs and files are getting larger. A 1 0 . meg program is not uncommon. RAM requirements have increased in like manner to disk storage for similar reasons of program file size.
The Laser printer does virtually all printing and most plotting is done using the Laser printer. The plotter is used when multi-color presentation materials are desired. It is nice to have a plotter, but a plotter is not essential. Unfortunately, our FTIR will not plot to a Laser printer.. We purchased a Plotter in a Cartridge from Pacific Data Products for our Laser printer to enable our FTIR to plot quality spectra on the Laser printer. This is an excellent emulation package and enables us to plot IR spectra about 5 times faster than with a plotter.
A variety of fonts and font sizes are desirable in text and for such things as signs and labels. A font cartridge such as 25 In One by Pacific Data Products is a fine solution for the number of fonts available, but not in the sizes. Bltstream Facellft, a scalable fonts program, gives scalable fonts in virtually any size. It is a little slower, but the results are worth H. The best of both worlds looks as if it would be a new cartridge by Pacific Data Products, The Library, 51 different fonts scalable to virtually any size, or its PostScript emulation cartridge. The combination of a font cartridge with fixed fonts and scalable fonts provide an inexpensive alternative to PostScript printing. 
Communication with library qata banks is provided via a 9600 baud modem. Two lines go from PC's to the central college academic computer. Electronic mail is being installed this fall to faculty computers. An RS-232 automatic switching system provides trouble free access to the Laser printer. A Sayett Data Show Projection Unit and a transparency projector are available, but for most applications, either transparencies are used or students are taken to the computers.
Software: Wordperfect 5.1 is a significant improvement over previous versions. Pull down menus make it easy to select desired features and facilitate its use. Symbols a printer does not have are created and sent to the printer. An equation mode gives the user the ability to form complex equations with ease. Publication quality tables are easy to form. Almost any computer graphic may be imported into a document. A special publication program is not needed with WordPerfect. Quality reports, newsletters, and laboratory manuals can be created with ease. Wordperfect 2.2 fort he Mac facilitated the moving of complete documents with graphics, bold, italics, footnote, etc., in either direction without losses.
SideKick and SideKick Plus have given us problems. WordPerfect Office is our answer for a Menu, File Manager, Appointment Calendar, Notebook, etc. program. You can move from program to program with ease or move parts of files between programs through a clipboard.
We are using PlanPerfect, WordPerfect's spreadsheet, for most calculations and data plotting. It is similar. to Lotus, QuatroPro, or SuperCalc 5. Plan Perfect is slower. Symbols and fonts may be included easily in tables. Tables and graphs are easy to export to WordPerfect. OuatroPro and SuperCalc spreadsheets were easy to move into PlanPerfect. The Main Advantages of PlanPerfect for students and faculty are that the pull down menus, mouse support, and keystrokes are verysimilarto WordPerfect. We are not actively using a data base program, but we are using the data base capabilities of PlanPerfect to keep track of our chemical inventory. DataPerfect is a possibility and a data base program will be needed when we go to bar coding of chemicals and supplies.
DrawPerfect, a presentaion graphics program, is used to prepare transparencies, slides, charts and graphs, and other drawings. It comes with over 500 clip-art drawings and another 1000 drawings are available. It has also been used to prepare eye catching signs, drawing instrument schematics, and to run computer graphic shows.
Molecular Drawing/Graphics Programs: We are using three programs, Alchemy II, WIMP, and ChemDraft II, for molecular drawings and molecular graphics. All create graphic structures that can be imported into WordPerfect with ease.
Alchemy II is the easiest to use and is a powerful molecular modeling program enablir)g one to build structures on the screen. Energy minimization (MN2) is included. Space filled, ball and stick, orthogonal, and stereo views are available. It is a neat package to experiment with your ideas on the molecular structure of compounds. The day after it was installed, our analytical chemist was working with his research student on the structures of a number of biochemical molecules.
ChemDraft II will create chemical structures in two and three dimensions and provides high quality hard copy. Text and chemical systems can be addf'd, with ease. It is easy to use and less expensive than Alchemy II. A MNDO and MN2 package is available for it. The program is less friendly than Alchemy II.
WIMP, the Wisconsin Interactive Molecular Program, which is available from Aldrich, is a powerful program for drawing quality chemical structures, reaction schemes, and chemical equipment diagrams. WIMP is not as easy to use; however, the current Microsoft Windows version may help simplify its application.
Each program provides a unique set of complex tasks. I look forward to the day when one molecular graphics/drawing package will have the features of the three programs and more.
Parting Shots: Our students are as adept as the faculty in wordprocessing, importing experimental data into programs, and using spreadsheets and grpahics programs. Little formal instruction is given. At the end of early physical chemistry experiments, I help them enter their data in prepared spreadsheets and polish output. One to three hours are spent in class instruction each year. As they wish to learn more, fellow students or faculty give them one on one help.
The protection of the Copyrights of the owners of the programs you use is an important responsibility of faculty members. We serve as important role models for our students on ethics and values. In the department we avoid this temptation to violate copyrights by purchasing site licenses, and special programs single license programs are found only on a single computer. For example, our three molecular graphics programs are on three different machines. This saves hard disk room and installation and upkeep time.
Computer viruses have not been bothersome yet on IBM machines on campus. They abound on the College's Macintoshes. It could be luck, our students, the IBM world, or the chemical fumes. Backing up of file is up to the individual, but we hope to have a complete back-up system in place by this year. 
Hardware repairs have been few with the exception of two Sweet Pea plotters which were tried when live RS-232 cables were connected to live plotters. They were under service contract and were replaced promptly. Our HP plotter has had no such problem. Our computer center and local computer dealer have taken care of all minor repairs promptly with colorful noise and grumbling.
The Future: We plan to replace all of our older computers with new and faster machines. Windows and Excel for Windows are being evaluated. A fibre optics campus network is on the drawing board. Our dreams include: computer bar coding for our chemicals and supplies to keep better track of them, a color laser printer to enrich our documents, a CD-ROM unitto be able to use some of the new educational materials available on CDROM, and a graphics super micro computer workstation for powerful molecular graphics programs.


10/01/91 to 10/04/91