You are here

OrganicERs a Growing Online Community


 Justin Houseknecht and Jennifer Muzyka


The organicERs community ( has been organized to provide an online site where college-level instructors of organic chemistry can share curricular materials and network.  With sponsorship from the NSF-funded Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Communities of Scholars program (cCWCS,, we have led two-day workshops in 2013 and 2014.  Workshop leaders and participants have contributed tests, quizzes, syllabi, etc. to the site.  Other organic chemistry faculty members have joined the community, which includes access to discussion forums and an abundance of materials used at a wide variety of institutions

OrganicERs is the outgrowth of conversation amongst a handful of organic chemists over lunch in Pollock Commons at the 2012 BCCE. We took a brief hiatus from discussing the removal of JoePa’s statue to think about what could improve our own teaching and that of other organic faculty around the country. We were aware of VIPEr and all that it does to support inorganic instruction. Could we do something similar for organic chemistry? David Collard, co-PI for the NSF-sponsored Chemistry Collaborations, Workshops and Community of Scholars program (cCWCS), thought we could.

Four months later cCWCS approved our application to hold a mini-workshop on Active Learning in Organic Chemistry in Charlotte, NC. David also built a wonderful website,, for an online home. As June 2013 approached the presenters, and to a lesser extent attendees, began uploading exams, quizzes, active learning questions, syllabi, and lab experiments to the website. This material was eventually placed behind a firewall to ensure that only registered community members (verified as faculty) could gain access. The workshop itself was almost 72 hours (depending upon hours slept) of great conversation about pedagogy amongst 33 organic chemists. Where the presenters had relatively little actual experience with active learning methods (half of us had none) attendees with a year or more of experience took the lead. We all left Charlotte members of a community, excited to try something new in the coming academic year.  One workshop participant remarked:  "What a great group of passionate educators!  I hope the organicERs website becomes/remains an active location for the sharing of ideas/creative assignments.  Thanks for including me!"1

Four of the presenters most committed to active learning in organic chemistry formed a Leadership Board to move OrganicERs forward. We set up procedures to approve new members and content, made suggestions to improve the website, implemented ideas we learned in Charlotte, and planned a 2014 cCWCS workshop.

The Charlotte workshop and an additional year of active learning in our classrooms enabled Denver 2014 to be much more focused on active learning. All four members of the Leadership Board were able to present on pedagogies that they had at least a year’s experience with. The fifth presenter had years of experience flipping his classrooms at a community college and was thereby uniquely qualified to speak to the large number of community college faculty in attendance. The workshop only lasted 68 hours, but was again full of great discussion about teaching and learning organic chemistry. We left with new ideas to pursue including several participants planning to dramatically increase the active learning in their classes.

OrganicERs now has almost one hundred fifty members with access to hundreds of resources:

65 exams and quizzes
31 individual exam questions
77 active learning questions / resources
18 lab experiments
21 syllabi

Members of the Leadership Board briefly review resources before approving them, but we are shifting toward a post-publication review model. This means it is important for members that use a resource to comment upon its value. A rating system for value and difficulty is under development.  Membership is approved only for individuals who are faculty members who teach organic chemistry at institutions of higher education.

Also in process is our ability to maintain contact with members and measure impact. The Leadership Board knows that OrganicERs has transformed classrooms, led to three talks at the 2014 BCCE,2-4 and formed the basis of several manuscripts currently in preparation. We know what participants have been excited to try upon leaving the Charlotte and Denver workshops, and several have communicated their experiences after their first year.5 We plan to pursue these aims better via a forum and blog on the website and a bimonthly newsletter to be distributed via e-mail.  Our first newsletter was distributed in early October.


(1)  More comments from workshop participants are available.  (Appendix 1)
(2) Justin B. Houseknecht P290:  Flipping the organic chemistry classroom using the Explain Everything app
(3)  Vincent Maloney P293:  Transformation of the traditional organic chemistry lecture sequence into a hybrid of face to face peer learning and online lecture:  Another flipping organic chemistry course.
(4)  Elizabeth Blue P116:  Meeting students where they are:  utilizing Facebook as a class discussion board and for virtual office hours.
(5)  Follow-up comments from the 2013 Charlotte workshop participants in summer 2014.  (Appendix 2)


Appendix 1:

Quotes from Charlotte workshop participants:

  • Thank you so much.  I learned about all kinds of new material and ideas for teaching in class!
  • JITT - better buided reading of upper level text will improve student reading skills & make more productive use of class time.
  • I plan to do the flip method & perhaps use one of the iPad apps to prepare the lectures.  I also plan to use the organicERs website for many resources - problem solving, writing assignments.
  • What a great group of passionate educators!  I hope the organicERs website becomes/remains an active location for the sharing of ideas/creative assignments.  Thanks for including me!
  • I will use flipping techniques to have students learn contents outside of the lecture so that we can use class time to discuss more advanced concepts.
  • Nice concise way to focus on one aspect of teaching.  Great collegiality and willingness of colleagues to share resources and work together.  (Location made it easy to focus on work at hand rather than wandering off for sight seeing, which people tend to do!)
  • It totally met my expectations.  I am leaving with a ton of new ideas.  I have to temper what I can do next year.
  • I had attended a workshop several years ago when we had to get our own meals.  This was really nice that the meals were brought to the hotel and we all ate together.
  • I am a low-tech person and attending this workshop really helped me regarding how to teach organic chemistry class with useful tools and resources.
  • Very well done and well organized.  Lots of excellent information presented by very knowledgeable speakers and attendees.
  • Yes...almost overwhelming...but manageable.  I now have 2 years of improvements for my classes!  Now I can disseminate stuff to my department!
  • I plan to incorporate some small lecture capturing and introducing videos before lectures; use lecture time more for problem solving and discussions.  Educreations seems very powerful & user-friendly.  I have also tried Doceri - it works well for my current ambitions.
  • Workshop met all my expectations, and it often exceeded them.  I learned a lot and have collected a large bank of new resources and generated ideas on how to adapt and increase what I am currently doing.
  • As a "newer" organic chemistry professor, I have struggled to find ways of engaging students in the active learning environment....I intend to use Educreations & Camtasia (with Bamboo tablet) to enhance student learning & review general chemistry.  As a user of the Smith textbook, the first 4 chapters are devoted to general chemistry review.  This is way too much time to "review."  I intend to prepare video lectures covering these four chapters.  This should help with the "rush" at the end of the semester.
  • I have ideas worth pursuing & contact info for people who can help me if I encounter roadblocks.
  • I already flip my class & was looking for activities to conduct during our face-to-face meeting time in organic.  I found the "JiTT" to be beneficial because it helped put into perspective what I could try in terms of clickers & other materials right at the start. 
  • I also like the idea of using educreations for the students to submit questions/solutions to things electronically with pictures & drawings.
  • I have met many people who I think I will keep in contact with and I'm very excited to share materials.  When I started teaching I had absolutely no materials shared with me, and only limited resources online.
  • I would like to start introducing the JiTT techniques into the sophomore organic chem courses.  The goal will be eventually to move the sequence to a flipped classroom.
  • I would like to use clickers &/or other CATs.  Some of the ideas from the Livescribe & Educreations will be used in the recordings that I currently do for the course.
  • I would like to increase student involvement in the class.  The idea of "forcing" students to read and/or participate in problem solving seems to be very beneficial.  My hope is to flip the class within the next year.  I have yet to figure out the method to use for the lectures as I am currently using none of these techniques.  Once flipped I envision class time to be used for daily quizzes, then group work solving problems. 
  • This workshop more than met my expectations.  The amount of new information that I have acquired is somewhat overwhelming at the moment, but hopefully I can sort it out and begin to implement stuff.
  • Very useful to hear oustanding presentations & then discussions from others using these ideas/methods.  Resources/website will be very valuable.


Quotes from Denver workshop participants:

  • The time was used very efficiently anad there was a good balance of active and passive offerings, and discussion.  The only thing I would have enjoyed was a more robust discussion of assessment.
  • I am excited to get back and start working on some of these technologies and pedagogies.  I haven't been this inspired in years.
  • I learned so much I haven't even really begun to process it all.  I will organize the information and make decisions ASAP.
  • I am much more aware of the types of technologies that are available to use in the classroom.  With so many options available to educators, it was particularly helpful to see what other educators are using successfully and to hear some of the nuances of each device/program.  I definitely don't feel like a "master" at any of these new technologies, but it was a great springboard for me to begin researching on what might work best for me.
  • The workshop was very informative.  I do incorporate many of these aspects already, and I liked to be able to network with everyone to get more experience.  It would help to have hands-on experience in terms of seeing what it looks like in practice.  One area that would be helpful is to see it in different types of schools (public, private, small large).
  • I was very familiar with the concept of flipping the classroom, but less so of the JiTT.  I had virtually no knowledge of the technologies available for lecture capture or pencasting, so that was extremely helpful.
  • I can say this was a very informative workshop.  I feel I can apply any of the technologies with comfort given the teachings presented.
  • The workshop was very interesting.  It gave me an overview of the latest pedagogy and technological advances in effective teaching in organic chemistry.  I wish there was a more hands-on component to it.
  • I am thankful for the opportunity to attend the Active Learning in Organic Chemistry workshop.  What struck me was how relatively simple these technologies or pedagogical styles are to implement if you set your mind on it.  And I am looking forward to integrating some of them to my teaching.  In addition, a big change for me during the workshop was the fact that I came out of the program seriously considering fostoring more peer-to-peer teaching/learning by using small groups in my class.
  • The presenters were excellent and described numerous ways to approach the use of JiTT and the flipped classroom.  I think it would have been helpful to have an additional day just to work on some class materials.  For example, I would like to use lecture-capture to mini video lectures for my course.  Of the three (very) different methods/technologies that were presented, I'm not sure which option to choose or whether another different method might work best for me.  I find it helpful to try out new software/technology for the first time when there is an expert present.
  • Very well organized and I learned a lot on the iPad screen, just in time teaching, livescribe pen, and video capture.  I could relate to everybody in the room since this workshop was for organic chemists.  I hope to attend more workshops like this.  Thanks to the organizers.
  • I thought the workshop was outstanding.  I really appreciated all the effort that went into the thorough and engaging presentations.  I am anxious to implement JiTT.


Appendix 2:

Comments from 2013 workshop participants in summer 2014:

  • If I can get them to work properly, I plan to use clickers for organic.  I have used the livescribe pen and flipped some lectures.  I tried the Just in Time teaching but it didn't work as well as I would have liked.  I got behind on assigning reading questions and wasn't as consistent as I needed to be, thus students didn't always know when to expect reading questions and they fell behind. I may try several assignments again this year to see how they go.
  • Here's a summary of what I tried:
    • Partial Flipping of Organic Chemistry (AY 2013-14)
    • Software - Educreations (Recording with a headset with a microphone)
    • Lessons - topics that students traditionally struggle with (arrow pushing, formal charges, MO Theory, key named reactions and associated mechanisms, multi-step syntheses/retro synthetic analysis)
    • Lesson Lengths - 5 to 15 min.
    • Typical Day - Q&Q, in-class assignments, problem solving, and some lecture
    • Student Response - Absolutely positive
    • Partial Flipping of Organic/Inorganic Spectroscopy (2 hr. lecture)  + Associated Lab (two 3 hr lab)  (Planned for F2014)
  • I am planning on starting to flip the classroom for OChem.  I got Camtasia and I'm going to start messing around with recording lectures.  I've also used the JITT method in my gen chem class to get them to read.  Students who do it recognize the benefit.  I still need to hone the questions.  In my gen chem class, I still do a lecture-based approach though.  I'm thinking I might flip certain topics in gen chem and see how that goes.  I'm also looking into using electronic notebooks for my OChem and research.  At these conferences, if someone is using a cheap/free electronic notebook, that would be great to know.
  • I don't know if these "count" as technologies, but I used the following last year in my classes:
  • Educreations
  • Facebook group as a class discussion board/online office hours (presenting on this at BCCE and considering writing a JCE paper on this)
  • class & lab website
  • Trialed Mastering Chemistry and was unimpressed.
  • Some POGIL/in-class problem solving/active learning
  • "Manual" Clickers :) (hand raising/# of fingers showing, etc. :))
  • And I plan to use all of the above this year again except Mastering Chemistry, and am using the new Karty text, so will be using SmartWork.
  • I tried out Just In Time Teaching last summer with some success, but had huge sections this past academic year and was the only Organic Chemist as our old Chair became Dean and I was in charge of the hiring process for his replacement, so I was pretty much in survival mode last year :)
  • I have been using the Just-In-Time assignments.  The JIT has been used mostly in conjunction with the Klein "Second Language" texts, though small videos and reading assignments out of the Wade text have also been used.  I have been using the JIT assignments as a way of preparing the students for the days lecture subject.  The participation has been consistently in the 80-95% range and the feedback has been very positive.  I have also been using clickers and the new Learning Catalytics from Pearson as well, though in a much more limited fashion.  Thank you once again for all of you and your colleagues' hard work.  We greatly appreciated the opportunity to participate in the workshop last year.
11/05/14 to 11/08/14


Bob Belford's picture

Hi Justin and Jennifer,

I am sort of real-time testing the website with your paper and our first comment. Although I do not teach organic, I noted you had a green experiment, the Green Bromination of Alkenes. Because I do not have an account I was not able to see what kind of information came with the experiment. Are there guidelines on the type of material provided with an experiment? Like safety material? Disposal? Is there a forum to discuss the material, sort of like GEMS?

This seems like a very valuable resource that you have put together, and thank you for sharing it with us.

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss One of our hopes for this discussion is to have additional sets of eyes on the website that will help us see where the holes are. Our members so far have been very responsible and included safety and disposal information with their lab materials, but I don't believe we have explicitly requested specific information. We should and I will be sure that is added to the list of website improvements we address at our next leadership retreat.
Each resource does have a place for comments and there is also a forum for, among other things, discussion of the laboratory experiments.
We would like ConfChem participants to have access to the website for the remainder of this session. Those with faculty appointments are welcome to apply for an account. We have also set up a temporary account with the username "CCCEtemp account" and the password "November2014" that will be active for the remainder of this week.

I'm interested in safety information for chemistry laboratories and thus found the video in the resource library at

I noticed that the voting on this video was negative (58% to 42%), but it would be helpful to know how many votes this represents, as well as why people may not be impressed with it as a teaching tool. Is that sort of information collected by the web site?

- Ralph

Ralph Stuart
Chemical Hygiene Officer
Keene State College

I agree with you that it would be useful to have feedback about why individual community members vote the way they do about different resources. The details about how many votes are represented might be available somewhere in Drupal, but I'm not familiar enough with the workings to know how to access that information. We have been encouraging community members to post comments so that we can improve the usefulness of the materials that are being shared. If it is not clear why a particular individual votes thumbs up or thumbs down on an item, other users less able to determine whether the materials will be suitable for their own uses.
The thumbs up/thumbs down rating system was our first attempt at allowing users to provide feedback. Maybe a ranking system involving 1-5 stars would be better for our uses. I am hopeful that we will modify the voting system on resources so that community members are prompted to provide comments in addition to ratings. I suspect that information about how many votes have contributed to a particular ranking would also be useful. Those additional pieces of information would provide perspective. The reality is that different materials might be more suitable for some environments than others. What one user ranks highly another might not find as useful.
Since the community is still new, we expect we might have some growing pains as we discover the approaches that best fill our needs. I see the ranking system for resources as a place where we need to be working.

Congratulations on your site--looks like you are making great progress! On VIPEr (, the inorganic equivalent to your site, we have struggled with implementation of ratings that would be useful to our community as well. We started with a 5 d-orbital rating (Ok, we're inorganic chemists) but people didn't use it a whole lot. We learned later that in general 1-5 ratings really aren't useful unless you have a tremendous number of users--many more than we will ever have. We've recently added a system where people can add a learning object to their "Favorites" and indicate if they have adopted it (sort of an equivalent of a "thumbs up") but elected not to include a thumbs down equivalent. Our next step is working on getting a way to visualize the adoption data in Drupal 7 (I am guessing it can be done) and being able to provide that information to owners of the learning object for assessment purposes.

Hilary Eppley, DePauw University (and VIPEr)

Hilary - Thank you for sharing your experience on VIPEr. I wonder, based on our collective experience, whether hoping for useful voluntary ratings from users is overly optimistic. It must be possible to track views and/or downloads in Drupal. I assume this is what you mean by adoption data? The next step might then be to prompt users that have "adopted" an object to rate it and/or provide comments upon their next login. It wouldn't necesarily be mandatory, but an automatic prompt might increase the number and value of responses. (A similar approach might also be used to encourage people to contribute at least one item for every ten downloaded?) There may be significant technical challenges to such an approach, but the alternative may be to shift back to a more rigorous pre-publication review process which in many ways fails to leverage the value of the robust online community we are attempting to create.

Justin -- Our adoption data is actually from a button that they push indicating that they have adopted the LO. We've discussed sending follow up emails after downloads to find out if people have adopted something, but haven't figured out a good way to implement that yet. We can (and do) count downloads from Drupal but that is significantly more complicated to do (hence we probably get that data only once a year for our annual reports). We are actually happy to see people using the resource and have never discussed having any sort of "payback" in the form of new contributions, but that has happened over the years. We have, however, found that by making our workshop participants contribute at least 3 learning objects at the workshop, that significantly lowers the barrier to future contribution for some of them!

I explored the website and I liked the variety of high-quality teaching materials.

One thing that might be useful to navigate through the growing body of learning materials is somehow to sort them by the instruction method (e.g. inquiry-based experiments, worksheets for collaborative group learning, assignments that involve some technology or computer-assisted learning, multiple choice questions that can be used for clickers, advance organizers, etc).

The website is extremely useful for someone at the beginning of the teaching carrier.

Alexey Leontyev
Doctoral student,
Chemical Education Program
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Northern Colorado

I'm glad to hear that you find the website useful for faculty members who are just starting their teaching careers. I like your suggestion to categorize learning materials by the instruction method used. Back when I took organic, the only materials the instructor used were suggested problems from the textbook and exams! We tried to split out different kinds of instructional methods a little bit with the category of active learning questions, but that category includes both multiple choice clicker questions as well as reading questions for Just-in-Time Teaching. Categories with finer distinctions would definitely enable users to more rapidly locate the kind of materials they are seeking.
I'm not sure I understand what you mean by advance organizers. Perhaps you could describe that kind of learning material - it sounds like something my students might appreciate.

Jennifer -
Advance organizers precede instruction (that's why they are called advance) and provide an introduction to a new topic, with the goals of giving students an overview, connecting new information to what the students already know, and illustrating the organization of the new concept or information to be processed and learned. A list of learning objectives can be an advance organizer. Other types include concept maps, narrative stories (chemistry in context), handouts, study guides, etc.

Couple of resources that explain that better than me:

Hope that helps,

I looked at the website and the user interface and navigation guide is seamless you did a great job with that!

I would include one or two things, first is a search bar on the side or an advance search option so instructors will have an idea of what direction they want to go in if they don't know which option their search topic is under. Second would be a contact section of Instructors who want their contact info on the website so if anyone has any questions or would like to discuss with the professor what was posted, to help clear up any questions they may have.

Thanks for the compliments on our site. Adding a search option in addition to the current browsing option is a great idea! I also like your suggestion to make it easier for community members to find each other. Sometimes it's possible to figure out a faculty member's institutional affiliation from the individual curriculum materials. Otherwise it's necessary to look up the institutional affiliation from the list of members, followed by going to the school's website to find the person's email address. That's a lot of steps, and networking between community members could be improved if we make it easier for them to find each other. I appreciate your suggestions.

SDWoodgate's picture

My experience in running a web site is that it is not unrealistic to expect users to (a) enter ratings at the very least or (b) enter comments. The number of ratings on an individual item may actually not be large, but they are still an indication. Having said that, I think that showing the number of responses is important. BTW, well done. There is interesting stuff available even for experienced teachers.