You are here

Great Expectations for Computer Usage by Undergraduate Chemistry Students


Jim Beatty
Professor of Chemistry, Ripon College
Ripon, WI 54971

Note: This article was scanned using OCR from the Spring 1997 CCCE Newsletter. Please contact us if you identify any OCR errors.
0ver forty years ago at MIT I started using computers for calculations in chemistry. I have moved from a mainframe computer fed by punch cards for each run to teletype terminals connected to mainframe computers by slow telephone lines to the early microcomputers with BK of memory ( Commodore PETS and Apples) to the Pentium Ill machine I am writing this article on. I have served  my time on computer committees and even was offered the position to manage our network. I continue to help friends with their computer problems and amazed that I can hold my own with most professional computer staff personnel. For the past twenty five years I have been a consultanV evaluator for the North Central Association (NCA), the national accreditation agency for the Midwestern states, doing one to two accreditation visits per year to colleges similar to Ripon College. Usually I look at the Sciences, the Library, academic and administrative computing. On these visits computer usage is a frequent discussion topic with members of the accrediting team and members of the institution being examined. Budgets for computer services as a percentage of institutional budgets have been going up each year. Cost of computer facilities and services are about the same for colleges as for the library. There is a realization that college computer costs must level off and be controlled.
Initially, I had great expectations for the power of the computers and how they could be a great boon to instruction of Chemistry for the undergraduates at institutions such as Ripon College. Ripon College is a Liberal Arts College of about 800 students and is a member of the Associated College of the Midwest. Our department has four Ph.D. chemists and is ACS approved. We graduate 5-12 majors a year and are currently coming out of an enrollment decline. About 80 %of our students have their own personal computers in their dormitory rooms. They have more computer power than they need. Fast hookups to Email and the Net are available to all. Below I will recount some of our failures, successes, and what I think we as educators can do to improve the quality of computer usage.
We have tried computer assisted instruction (CAl) for several courses. Very early I wrote a series of programs to teach fundamental chemical chemistry principles and calculations and found that  this was not worth the effort. Students must learn by hard work and effort. The problem is getting them to think and study. A good text book and classroom lecture-discussion are helpful. Last year my students used the new edition of Atkin's Physical Chemistry with what I thought was a very excellent CD to get an overview and review of the chapter. They did not use it, but decided very early that Physical Chemistry was too hard and nothing would help. The class was small and I felt that I did not have a critical mass of students to have serious discussion and competition.
We have not used computer simulation of experimental equipment for we have a rich array of instruments from FTIR's, gas and liquid chromatographs, uvvisible spectrometers to a 300 megahertz superconducting FT-NMR. We have preferred a hands on instrument approach. Most of the instruments operate from Windows based computers of various vintages. We are finding that strip chart recorders are becoming a thing of the past. Students, with our encouragement, frequently paste chromatograms and spectrograms into their reports
Students currently use STN to search Chern Abstracts in our junior-senior courses for research papers and senior thesis research. We are just getting into online journal usage, and students use the Web to obtain Information for their seminars and presentations. Some of the web information used is poor to outright incorrect and very opinionated. Usage in this area exceeds our expectations. Students are eager to obtain and believe information from the Web.
We are currently using Spartan Pro and Gaussian 98 on PC for molecular modeling and quantum chemistry calculations. We use Spartan in all our organic courses and physical chemistry courses. We have a projection system for classroom use and are applying forfunds for Spartan systems for Organic I, our first semester freshmen course. We hope our students will consider these quantum chemistry programs as tools on the par with instruments.
One area that I note on my NCA visits, on campus, and reading Wisconsin newspapers is that administrative computing, namely change overs to more powerful data base programs are costly and create serious pain for users including students and faculty. Our registrar and finance office for over six months has been entering data in the old and new data base. Department budget records are not being issued. Student transcripts have been issued on time, but some administrative offices have serious delays in using the new data system. One of our Midwestern universities could not issue transcripts for months and now the ones they issue have an accuracy disclaimer. Because of these changeovers student registration has regressed. These changes are not trivial and have proved to be much more costly and time consuming then many expected. On some of my recent NCA visits, recent data I requested was unavailable because the old system out and the new system could not retrieve data from the new common data base.
Most students who selected the programmable calculator option for calculus use their calculators for numerical integrations, solving transcendental equations, and repetitive calculations. Spreadsheets are routinely used for linear regression calculations and graphing. Most will not put in the effort to develop their own spreadsheets for repetitive problems that occur in our physical chemistry course. They do not see the advantages one obtains when you must redo an incorrect calculation correctly using a spreadsheet. Little use is made of software such as MathCad or Maple. I am still using Scientific Workplace and Scientific Word for Physical Chemistry laboratory reports (See an earlier edition of this journal) which has Maple and T .x incorporated into it. Students appreciate its power, but resist the effort needed to write in it, and do not like some of its constraints. They resist using help menus and the manuals. I believe it is important for them to see the power of this type of program for future reference.
The overall quality of student formal reports has improved due the use of word processing programs. We have a writing program at the College and a junior laboratory course emphasizing research report writing. Most students will not use the full power of word processing unless you demand it. The prefer to write in equations, drawings, reference numbers etc. even when they know that they will have a number of drafts. Suggestions to use the word processing program to do this early falls on deaf ears in most cases. This was brought home painfully for students and instructors alike when the students were writing their senior theses.
In conclusion, computers have brought improvements to the quality of instruction of undergraduate chemists and their work. Our expectations in the computer area have as in other areas fallen short. This is the nature of education, teaching and learning. September 22, 1999
03/10/99 to 03/14/99