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Computers in the Classroom • What Works and What Doesn't


Joseph Casanova
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
California State University Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90032·8202

Note: This article was scanned using OCR from the Spring 1996 CCCE Newsletter. Please contact us if you identify any OCR errors.
          In a frenetic effort to introduce the latest technology into the classroom, we sometimes behave like lemmings guided unerringly by a mysterious force toward an uncertain destiny. We try to do what we judge best for our students, and to make the most effective use of limited class time. In the process we try to assure that students capture and retain the most important concepts in chemistry. Yet we are collectively investing '} an inordinate amount of time inventing new approaches , to the presentation of material. This time investment, on j the part of many faculty across the country, reflects the pressure on all of us to do something new, anything new, to improve the retention of students in our programs, and of chemistry by these students.
          The plethora of new technological devices and computer applications that pour across our desk every day stimulates our instinct to innovate and to deliver knowledge and understanding to students in the best way we can. Much of this new effort comes at the expense of time which we formerly spent in "one-on-one" course\discussions, and m benchtop research efforts with 1 students, activities which in themselves have an important salutary effect on students' professional development. It is easy to understand why this change in emphasis has occurred. Laboratory research is difficult, often frustrating ortedious, usually expensive, and requires the availability of increasingly expensive and less readily available instrumentation. It is very time consuming for both the student and the professor. In contrast, development of new software, or of the lecture/ laboratory applications of new software presents a simpler challenge, with a much greater apparent return/ investment ratio. We can work with a few students to develop computer material, or we can work alone, in the quiet of our offices or home, uninterrupted. Colleagues and administrators alike see that we are advancing the cause of innovative teaching. Following the modest investment for purchase of a microcomputer, technollogical innovations using that computer are certainly [ less expensive, safer, and much cleaner than conducting bench chemistry. A significant number of colleagues share a concern that we are moving too far and too fast in technology. J. Lagowski has expressed the concern well [J. J. Lagowski, Editorially Speaking, "The Impact of Technology on Education", J. Chern. Ed. (1995) 72, 669.]
In the interest of productive investment of our intellectual time", it is increasingly important that each of us critically examine the manner in which we apportion that time among extra-classroom student oriented activities. To that end, we should carefully evaluate our own efforts to develop and utilize new technologybased teaching strategies, to assure that they are likely
to produce the most significant teaching impact possible in our own specific circumstances, and represent the best investment of our limited time. The foregoing admonition notwithstanding, in the next paragraphs this writer will review a few of the technology-based activities that are most familiar to him, and comment on their efficacy. This article is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the use of computers in chemistry, focusing instead on the experiences of the writer.
(1) Massive and passive use of the computer in lecture. We conducted a year long experiment to substitute the microcomputer for both the blackboard and the handheld molecular model, using the microcomputer, in the words of Mlrs Project Athena, as an "electronic blackboard." [J. Casanova, S. L. Casanova, "Computer as Electronic Blackboard: Remodeling the Organic Chemistry Lecture", Educom Review(1991) 2631.] Nearly all of the lecture material was contained in the microcomputer. Lecture material that would normally be written on the blackboard was developed in lecture fashion projected on a screen. We sought to make the computer itself as unobtrusive as possible.
          Students took very few notes, but listened and watched intently. Class participation (questions, comments, discussion) was high, of good quality, and stimulating. Students were very favorably impressed and asserted that they had a good understanding of the subject, i particularly the visual representations of molecular structure. However, very poor performance on conventional examinations did not support this assertion. A control section (taught by Professor Stanley H. Pine) took all the same examinations on the same days as did the experimental section. There was a striking difference in result between the experimental section and the control section, with the experimental section performing more poorly in all categories of test items. The overall average in the course for students in the experimental section was 44%, contrasted with 63% for the control section.
          We considered the following issues to rationalize our results. The electronic blackboard allows for the presentation of substantially more information in a give period of time than does the conventional blackboard but students may have trouble absorbing the adde information. There is ample evidence that only fraction of the information conveyed in any typical lecture is in fact retained by the student [R. Menges, "Instructional Methods" in The Modern American College. Arthur W. Chikering and Associates, Eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (1981).]. The presentation of more information does not ensure the retention of more information.
          The electronic blackboard allows for the simultaneous presentation of graphic, pictorial, written, and spoken information. We do not know if simultaneous presentation enhances learning or makes assimilation, integration, and recall more difficult. Research in artificial \ intelligence has renewed interest in attentional selection, filtering, and reconstructive retrieval. [A., Allport,
"Visual Attention" in Foundations of Cognitive Science. M. A. Posner, Ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. (1989); S. Yantis, and J. C. Johnston, "On the Locus of Visual Selection: Evidence from Focused Attention Tasks." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. Vol. 16, No. 1. (1990). pp. 135-149; D. E. Rumelhart, "The Architecture of the Mind: A Connectionist Approach." in Foundations of Cognitive Science. M. A. Posner, Ed. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press. (1989).] In the electronic organic chemistry lecture, the combination of words and images presented concurrently on the screen may have been a problem.
          The electronic blackboard encourages greater reliance by the instructor on metaphor, illustration, and imaging, but the instructional effectiveness of these techniques is unclear. Metaphor, illustration, and modeling are important tools of teaching, but are often filtered and interpreted by unique individual experiences [R. W. Kleinman, J. Chern. Educ. (1987) 64, 766]. The capacity of the computer to illustrate in real time what will happen in an experiment when variables are altered, and to portray, rotate, and alter complex molecular structures, is what makes it so exciting for incorporation into the lecture. The fact that this enriching capacity did not translate into higher test scores we called the "Feynman effect." Richard Feynman's legendary physics
lectures were amply illustrated with mental images and analogies. Examples, rich in visual imagery, punctuated his lectures, which were delivered with remarkable organization and clarity. Students left the lectures believing they understood physics, later to discover that they understood only the illustrations. Students at the introductory level need to be carefully guided to link
chemical imagery with chemical theory. The profound implications of providing to undergraduate chemistry students the pictures and movements of models that were at one time envisioned and manipulated only in the imagination need to be mentioned. The photographic reality of current computer models makes it harder than ever to persuade students that these images are not
          Finally, in changing the lecture priority from words and theory to graphics and visualization, the electronic blackboard conveys to students a different set of priorities within the discipline which may or may not be tested in traditional examinations.
(2) Computer response system - active involvement of students in the process. In a resurrection of ancient history, we revisit a 25 year old experiment that, in retrospect, was more successful than we appreciated at the time. [J. Casanova, "An Instructional Experiment in Organic Chemistry'',J. Chern. Ed. (1971) 48, 453.] We utilized a classroom response device which permitted
students to respond individually to questions raised by the instructor after presentation of each concept (15-20 minutes). Responses were recorded individually and collectively,andwerepartofthefinalgrade. The lecture could be modified on the fly to ameliorate any widespread misconceptions. Experimental and control sections (control sections taught by Professor Stanley H. Pine) were conducted and students in all sections took all the same examinations. The nature oflhe curriculum experiment was not advertised in advance to avoid
student self-selection. While the performance of students was nearly the same in all sections, the retention of students whose performance was marginal was nearly twice as good In the experimental sectiOn (10% drop) as was retentiOn In the control sections (17 and 20%drop). The latter drop rate was comparable to drop rates In most other secti<lns at that time. The positive effect of more active student engagement was consid· ered even In 1970: 'The greater the passMty ol the~ studl!nt, the less benolit he is likely to derive from the lecture.• {see also J. J. Lagowski, Editorially Speaking, ''Teaching Is More Than Lecturing", J. Chem. Ed. (1990) 
67, 811.)
(3) Commercial packages tor CQI!Jputationat chtmlstry with student axerejl;es, The capacity ollhe computer to mirrk what chemlsts had clone mentally-to model and manipulate Images -was reoognized earty by most chemists, and computer modeling and oo~ation have rapidly become Indispensable tools of tha disci-pline. We have used several modeling and structure display applications In the organic lecture. PC Model [Serena Software. P .0. Box 3076, Bloomington. IN 47402-3076) and Molecular Editor (This latter display application Is now dated). Most recent we have used the display application Rasmol. Rasmot Is an excellent new display program, recently modified and lmp'oved by M. Molinaro, and is available tor the Macintosh as RasMac v.2.5-ucb1.3 J!) !!QIB.umoiL). In general. aee · ahn/ bOc.htm} for the most widely us ern stry software. Ahhough this Is a very important application ol comput· era in teaching, linle more will be said here. The reader Is referred to detailed publications [J.P. Bays, J. Chern. Ed. 1992, 69, 209; J. Casanova, "Computer-Based Molecular Modeling in the Curriculum•, J. Chern. Ed., 1993, 70, 904). 
          We are currently integrating computational chemistry into several laboratory exercises In our bask: organic laboratory course, with the Idea of asking students to test a stereochemical result on the computer. predl<:t the result, then conduct the experiment and compare theory and practice. This activity is being conducted under an NSF ILl award. 

          Semi-empirical calculations permit examlnallon ot elac· tronlc structure as well as molecular geometry. hence analysis of readivity and chemical behavior. II is now possible tor students to cornpU1e and view Important electronic features of molecules quaJ~atively using even ab initio melhods. Orbital energy levels, electron dlstri· butions and charges, dipole moments, vibrational fre-quencies and heats ol formation are readily available for classroom use. Several applications suitable for the computation of electronic structure are available: CAChe [CACMSclen!Kic, P. 0. BoxSOOMIS 13-400, Beaverton, Oregon 970n) system is an integrated seamless appli· cation that WOiks best with a higher-end Macintosh. h offers unique stereo visualization, and can be used lor semi-empirical calcUlations. HyperChem (AutodeSI<, Inc., Scientific Modeling Division, 2320 Marinship Way, Sausalito. CA. 94965.) ope rates on a relatively in expon· sive pentium or Power PC platform , and wRI perrna semi-empirical calculational methods. Spartan soli-ware ofWaveFunctlon (WaveFunction, Inc., 18401 Von Karman, Sutte 310, Irvine, CA 92715.) is a third. Spar· tan is the first fully integrated package lor sernl-i!rnpiri· 

          cal and ab initio calculations. Spartan will calculate and display conformations, electron density surfaces, as well as HOMO and LUMO representations, in vivid color images. These capabilities make the teaching of both structural chemistry and chemical reactivity an attractive possibility. Faculty are already beginning to explore the use of Spartan in the classroom [Shusterman, A. J. "Advanced Computation at Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions: Using Spartan on the IBM RISC System 6000 Workstation", A Series on Molecular Modeling, N. S. Mills, Ed, Council on Undergraduate Education Newsletter, XII, No.3, 60, (1992); W. J. Hehre and W W. Huang, "Chemistry with Computation. An Introduction to Spartan", WaveFunction, Inc. (1995)].
          The inexorable development of faster hardware and of fully integrated visually sophisticated molecular modeling software makes inevitable rapid change for the use of 'molecular modeling' in chemistry. Molecular modeling will soon extend to 'reaction modeling', and students will understand earlier and perhaps more intuitively what we have been asserting at the chalkboard for so long. Imagine students in the beginning organic course discovering resonance and hybridization, visualizing the reactivity of the carbonyl group, and calculating transition states for reactions. The accelerating trend toward more powerful desktop machines to make such calculations rapid and inexpensive shows no sign of abating. The time is right for dedicated classroom lecturers to review and revise the formal lecture approach to introduce these new techniques.
(4) Courses in the use of comouters for chemistry. We have taught a course called "Microcomputers in Chemistry". It is the objective of this course to introduce the student to the use of the microcomputer, so that microcomputers could be used as an integral and routine part of the educational experience of a chemistry/biochemistry degree program. It was aimed atthe individual who has little or no prior experience with microcomputers, and is designed to familiarize the student with the use of a microcomputer as a productivity tool - that is, for word processing, graphing and interpreting data, drawing, presentation graphics; for computations, structural computation and display; for data collection and instrument control; communication with a server, electronic mail, literature search via Chemical Abstracts. It is intended that students take this course as early in their undergraduate experience as possible so that they can exploit fully the benefits of the microcomputer in their programs. Students who took this course evaluated it very highly, and apparently learned a great deal from it. Once again we believe that the key to success was that this was a laboratory course in which every student sat at a computer actively engaged during and following every class.
{5) Drill and practice. We have had modest success using a variety of drill and practice programs in general and organic chemistry. We particularly have found Paul Schatz's spectroscopy tools (irand nmrsimulators, and spectra interpretation software [Trinity Software, Campton, NH 03223] very useful. Several versions of nomenclature drill software have been used, as has Beaker [J. Brockwell and collaborators, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, CA 93950]. But all these exercises are only as useful as we were successful in getting students to use the computer. We have often seen that when, for example, we conduct review sessions in advance of major exams, it is the better students who participate in such voluntary enrichment activities. It is no different with the use of software. Students who avail themselves of drill and practice learn from it. Active student engagement is the key. Active student participation is once more the  centerpiece of success in this mode of computer use. It is imperative to acknowledge here the enormous contributions of John Moore and his collaborators in developing and organizing software for the Division of Chemical Education.
(6) Electronic communications among students, with the instructor. and to the world beyond. "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive" [W. Scott, (1808)]. Without question the most rapidly expanding use of computer in teaching is in the introduction of materials for teaching on the WorldWide Web. This topic is addressed elsewhere in this publication
[C. H. Snyder, "A Web Page in Chemical Education"]. A veritable explosion is occurring at this time, with each day bringing a score of new projects and activities on the Web. With no review or filtering to intercept marginal material, the quality of what can be found is highly variable, from spectacular to abysmal. Among the better starts that we have seen in this approach, we note that many faculty are already heavily immersed in Web use in their daily class activities [see for example B. Luceigh: -luceigh/BAUBAL_exmcntr.html) and J. Charonnat:
[]. An excellent entree to some of the best Web activities in chemistry is available at [http://www .ch .ic .ac .uklinfobahnlboc.html]. It is premature to see how developments in this WWW use will best fit into our teaching, but the opportunity for active student engagement and interaction in class activities either via the Web or the internet is certainly
available. One of the most attractive and advanced use of the WWW in undergraduate instruction can be seen at the MC"2 web site [M. Molinaro: http://, follow link to MC/\2 or MultiCHEM].
          After all it will be seen that the most profound effect of successful innovations arises mostly from engaging the students in an active learning environment [J. Katz, M. Henry, D. Johnson, ''Turning Professors into Teachers", Macmillan (1988); S. Tobias, ''They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier", Research Corp., Tucson, AZ., (1990): C. K. Herman, J. Chern. Ed.
(1995), 72, 157.] This condition, of course, does not necessarily require computers or advanced technology, but clearly the computer based communication explosion that is now underway provides an excellent base from which to induce better commumcat1on from students to the professor, often from the safety and anonymity of a remote connection . It is a continuing irony that students are often more comfortable when their academic shortcoming are witnessed by the inanimate computerratherthan the human professor. Scores of projects are ongoing which are designed to engage students more actively that involve new technology and multimedia, but in an ancillary and complimentary way and not as the raison d'etre. Student engagement and
collaborative learning are the main features of these programs. A number of these funded by NSF are underway at this time. "Sweeping Change in Manageable Units: A Modular Approach to Chemistry Curriculum Reform" [Modular Chemistry Consortium, M0"2,], "ChemLinks Coalition: Making Chemical Connections", [], and "Establishing New Traditions: Revitalizing the Curnculum.] represent three efforts currently funded by NSF as an attempt to break out of the traditional lecture mold. Many other similar activities are ongoing.
          Certainly, many aspects of teaching chemistry are and will continue to be profoundly influenced by computer technology. But one gets the clear impression that much of our current fascination with technology IS faddish and will produce few memorable improvements in chemistry teaching. Perhaps it is the novelty of using computers actively in exercises that engages some students, but this engagement, much more than the computer, is the key to improving student performance.


03/01/96 to 03/05/96