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2017 Newsletter Article 1, IONiC VIPEr: A community of inorganic chemists who create, share, adapt, comment on, and give back in order to improve student learning


Chip Nataro, Dept. of Chemistry, Lafayette College, Easton, PA

Anne K. Bentley, Dept. of Chemistry, Lewis & Clark College, Portland, OR

Hilary J. Eppley, Dept. of Chemistry, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN

Elizabeth R. Jamieson, Chemistry Dept., Smith College, Northampton, MA

Adam R. Johnson, Dept. of Chemistry, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA

Barbara A. Reisner, Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Sheila R. Smith, Dept. of Natural Sciences, University of Michigan, Dearborn, MI

Joanne L. Stewart, Dept. of Chemistry, Hope College, Holland, MI

Lori A. Watson, Dept. of Chemistry, Earlham College, Richmond, IN

Nancy S. B. Williams, Keck Science Dept., Claremont Colleges, Claremont, CA


The Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists (IONiC) was created to provide an opportunity for inorganic chemists to share their teaching expertise and resources with other members of the community through VIPEr, the Virtual Inorganic Pedagogical Electronic Resource. The community also provides professional development opportunities for its participants through workshops and national meeting symposia. As the community grows, the aspirational goal of improving teaching and learning in inorganic chemistry remains at the forefront.



What is inorganic chemistry? The answer to this question is likely dependent on the person being asked. Wikipedia presents the highly insightful answer that “Inorganic chemistry deals with the synthesis and behavior of inorganic and organometallic compounds.”1 Turning to a source with a vested interest in this definition, the American Chemical Society’s Division of Inorganic Chemistry (DIC) states that it “represents a diverse body of scientists who come together to understand and promote the richness of the chemistry of the elements.”2 While both answers seem vague, additional digging through the DIC website provides some insight into the reasoning behind the vagueness. Bailar’s historical recounting of the DIC (which coincidentally is celebrating its 60th anniversary) outlines how inorganic chemistry was initially grouped with physical chemistry and had to struggle to forge its own identity.3 Now, 60 years later, the division is comprised of six subdivisions in an array of diverse fields: bioinorganic, organometallic, solid state, nanoscience, coordination and sustainable energy and environment.4 It is this incredible diversity of the field that serves as the basis for the development of our community.


VIPEr: The hatching


Just prior to the 2006 spring ACS meeting in Atlanta, GA, a group of six inorganic chemists with funding from the Mellon Foundation met to discuss both the commonalities and difficulties they face in teaching their courses. They quickly realized that they had much in common, mostly centered on a shared need for combatting curricular isolation. Typically an inorganic chemist’s training in graduate and post-doctoral work is focused in a specific subdiscipline of inorganic chemistry. For example, an organometallic chemist is not likely to be well-versed in solid state or bioinorganic chemistry. While you may be exposed to some of that material in courses or at seminars, it is clearly not your focus. This can make it extremely challenging when it comes time to develop a broad survey course that is expected to cover the fundamental concepts across all areas of inorganic chemistry. Upon realizing that they all faced that same challenge, the participants at that initial meeting hatched the Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists (IONiC).


A second grant from the Mellon Foundation allowed the group to grow to eight, and this group, now known as the leadership council or LC, met for the first time at the Chicago ACS meeting in 2007. This group envisioned the establishment of a website as the online space for IONiC. Funding was secured from NITLE, the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and the NSF-CCLI program. With this funding, the Virtual Inorganic Pedagogical Electronic Resources (VIPEr - was launched in 2008 (Figure 1). [If you haven’t


Figure 1. Adam ‘Titanium’ Johnson pushing the official launch button for the VIPEr website at the Spring 2008 American Chemical Society meeting.

noticed, the dubious acronyms stem from the LC’s insistence that all names be spelled with element symbols.] Since then, the LC has grown to ten members with additional community participants pitching in to help with site maintenance. The LC members communicate daily using a persistent chat in Skype and video conference approximately every three weeks using Zoom. In addition, we have an annual project meeting where we meet in person to work on proposal writing, brainstorm ideas for future goals, and plan new features for VIPEr. While the website is an integral part of our work, it is the establishment and growth of a community of practice5 to improve teaching and learning in inorganic chemistry that remains our goal. Additional details on the history of this project have been reported previously.6, 7

VIPEr: The website


The VIPEr website is what we are most known for (Figure 2). There are three different levels of public access to the VIPEr website: browser, registered user, and registered faculty user. Most of the materials on the website are available to anyone with an internet connection, while registered faculty users have greater access to features on the site including the ability to see answer keys and to upload their own materials for publication. When users request registered faculty status, an LC member verifies that they are a real faculty member. In addition to college faculty, faculty

Figure 2. The VIPEr website (


status can be granted to non-faculty users such as graduate students, post-docs, and high school teachers. There are now 1052 registered faculty users on VIPEr from 49 states (apparently Alaska and snakes don’t mix), 6 Canadian provinces, 6 continents (Antarctica is also not a place for snakes) and 36 countries (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Map of current registered faculty VIPEr users.


The VIPEr website is organized around four main components: teaching resources, workshops, forums, and BITeS. The first encounter with VIPEr for a new member of the community is most likely through the teaching resources. Teaching resources, referred to as learning objects or LOs, are materials posted by members of the community that undergo peer review prior to publication on VIPEr. At the start of the submission process authors must decide what type of LO they wish to publish: five slides about (an introduction to a topic, technique, etc.), in-class activity, lab experiment, literature discussion, problem set, textbook or web resources and apps. Problem sets are only accessible by faculty users, and other LO types feature faculty-only files that can only be accessed by faculty users. During the submission process, the authors select various metadata tags to classify their LOs. One such tag has the authors classify their LO by the topic(s) covered: atomic structure and properties, bioinorganic chemistry, coordination chemistry, electrochemistry, f-block chemistry, introductory chemistry, main group chemistry, molecular structure and bonding, organometallic chemistry, science skills, practices and resources, solid state and materials chemistry and spectroscopy and structural methods. LOs range from fully developed laboratories to single questions for homeworks or exams.


In addition to metadata tags, LOs include a brief description and student learning goals (Figure 4). If available, links to related activities and implementation and/or evaluation notes are included. Some of these data may not always be available when the LO is first submitted to the site, but we encourage authors to update their LOs as they use them in class.

Figure 4. Example of an in-class activity learning object (LO).


Finally, LOs are submitted with the Creative Commons sharealike license,8 so other VIPEr users can adopt and adapt any LO on the site, but authors maintain control of their work and receive proper attribution when their work is used or built upon by others. LOs contain a built in commenting feature so that users can report assessment and any modifications they’ve developed in using the LO. In some cases users have created modified versions of LOs adapted to different course levels, published those LOs on VIPEr and linked them to the original LO.  


Publishing LOs allows community members to share materials they found useful in their courses. The LOs do not have to be fully developed because what worked in your class may not exactly work in the class of someone else. But by publishing an LO you are likely to be helping out countless other faculty by providing a stimulating idea and an example of one way to implement it. In fact, the majority of our community only downloads materials from the site rather than publish new material, though we hope that as faculty users find the site useful, they will give back by providing comments or feedback on the LOs they use and contributing their own teaching materials.


Forums are designed for community members to interact on the VIPEr site. The four categories of forums are opportunities (typically job postings), research, teaching and faculty only (which are only available to faculty users). These forums provide opportunities for users to interact with the community members on any topic of their choosing. Some of the most popular forums are on textbook choice, developing course learning goals, and using technology in the classroom. Recently, we added a subscription feature to the website so users are alerted when someone has commented on their forum post.


A relatively new addition to the site is Blogging Inorganic Teaching & Scholarship (BITeS). This approximately weekly feature provides an opportunity to alert the community of upcoming events, new LOs, topics of conversation, or pretty much anything else the chosen BITeS author decides to present. The idea is to continue to draw the community back to the website so they know that even though they may not have used it for some time, there are still things happening on VIPEr.


IONiC: More than the website


While the VIPEr website provides a growing inventory of useful resources, building a community that enables inorganic faculty to flourish is the central part of this project. This has been and continues to be accomplished through a variety of different outlets. Since 2008, we have hosted oral and poster sessions entitled “Undergraduate Research at the Frontiers of Inorganic Chemistry” at spring national ACS meetings. To date, we have had 359 oral and 798 poster presentations as part of our sessions within the DIC. This accounts for approximately 10% of the total number of abstracts in the DIC sessions at the spring ACS National Meetings over that time period. As part of these sessions we host a social hour which is an opportunity for members of the community to come together and interact on an informal basis.


A series of “back-to-grad school” workshops represents a second means of community building. These faculty development workshops brought together approximately twenty participants and three or four speakers from research intensive universities. The speakers presented one of their recent publications and then the participants developed literature discussion LOs based on those presentations. In addition to helping the participants overcome the barrier to their first VIPEr submission, the workshops allowed the participants to network and have meaningful discussions about the challenges and successes they have had in the classrooms. Presentations by the LC focused on learning by design, using the VIPEr site, assessment of student learning and general content knowledge. These workshops have been very popular and have spawned research collaborations and inspired participants to run their own VIPEr workshops at regional ACS meetings.


Finally, our community is having a significant impact on how inorganic chemistry is taught. Two LC members published a paper encouraging faculty to make their teaching more collaborative and “visible” using internet technologies.9 Our snakey mascot, Flo (Figure 5), has a Facebook page ( and Twitter feed (@VIPEr_Flo) so that community members can receive updates through social media. We presented a viewpoint in Inorg. Chem. emphasizing the importance of presenting research in the classroom.10 Recently, several of us spearheaded a survey of what is taught in undergraduate inorganic courses.11-13 Given the nature of the field, it is not surprising that there is a high degree of variability in terms of the material covered, the number of courses taught, and the placement of those courses within the curriculum.


Figure 5. Flo getting ready for the upcoming ACS meeting in San Francisco.




In response to a perceived need, the IONiC community and its web presence VIPEr were created to support faculty and improve teaching and learning in inorganic chemistry. After ten years, the community and the website continue to grow with over 1000 registered faculty users from around the world. The VIPEr website, which was initially built with learning objects posted by the IONiC leadership council, now contains a rich and diverse array of learning objects authored primarily by users of the site. The IONiC community and VIPEr website are so much more than a repository of teaching materials. The community has and will continue to have a significant impact on how inorganic chemistry is taught. We enjoy the catchphrase, “Come for the content, stay for the community.” It is clear that many inorganic chemists are doing just that.



  1. Inorganic chemistry. Wikipedia, February 16, 2017,  (Accessed March 19, 2017),
  2. Division of Inorganic Chemistry. Division of Inorganic Chemistry of the American Chemical Society, (Accessed March 19, 2017),
  3. Bailar, J. C., A History of the Division of Inorganic Chemistry, American Chemical Society, J. Chem. Educ. 1989, 66, 537 – 545.
  4. Officers of the Division of Inorganic Chemistry. Division of Inorganic Chemistry of the American Chemical Society, (Accessed March 19, 2017),
  5. Wenger-Trayner,E., Wenger-Trayner, B., Introduction to Communities of Practice, Wenger-Trayner, (Accessed March 20, 2017),
  6. Benatan, E., Dene, J., Eppley, H., Geselbracht, M., Jamieson, E., Johnson, A., Reisner, B., Stewart, J., Watson, L., Williams, B. S., Come for the Content, Stay for the Community, Academic Commons, September 16, 2014, (Accessed March 20, 2017),
  7. IONiC: A Cyber-Enabled Community of Practice for Improving Inorganic Chemical Education, DivCHED CCCE, April 25, 2008, (Accessed March 20, 2017),
  8. Creative Commons License, Creative Commons, (Accessed March 19, 2017),
  9. Reisner, B. A., Williams, B. S., Visible Teaching: Moving from a Solitary Practice to a Community Endeavor, J. Chem. Educ., 2010, 87, 252 – 253.
  10. Jamieson, E. R., Eppley, H. J., Geselbracht, M, J., Johnson, A. R., Reisner, B. A., Smith, S. R., Stewart, J. L., Watson, L. A., Williams, B. S., Inorganic Chemistry and IONiC: An Online Community Bringing Cutting-Edge Research into the Classroom, Inorg. Chem., 2011, 50, 5849 – 5854.
  11. Reisner, B. A., Smith, S. R., Stewart, J. L., Raker, J. R., Crane, J. L., Sobel, S. G., Pesterfield, L. L., Great Expectations: Using an Analysis of Current Practices to Propose a Framework for the Undergraduate Inorganic Curriculum, Inorg. Chem., 2015, 54, 8859 – 8868.
  12. Raker, J. R., Reisner, B. A., Smith, S. R., Stewart, J. L., Crane, J. L., Pesterfield, L., Sobel, S. G., Foundation Coursework in Undergraduate Inorganic Chemistry: Results from a National Survey of Inorganic Chemistry Faculty, J. Chem. Educ., 2015, 92, 973 – 979.
  13. Raker, J. R., Reisner, B. A., Smith, S. R., Stewart, J. L., Crane, J. L., Pesterfield, L., Sobel, S. G., In-Depth Coursework in Undergraduate Inorganic Chemistry: Results from a National Survey of Inorganic Chemistry, J. Chem. Educ., 2015, 92, 980 – 985.
04/17/17 to 04/23/17


Chip and VIPEr colleagues,

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I know plenty of chemical educators whose focus is not inorganic chemistry who are jealous of the community you have developed with IONiC.  What approaches have you found effective for increasing discussion within your forums?  How has the recent addition of the subscription feature for forum posts influenced the level of discussion?

I am also interested to learn about the BITeS feature.  How are community members alerted to new articles?  Do you have an RSS feed?  Email messages?  Or do you use links on Twitter or Facebook to point folks back to your site?  Which method seems to work best?


Hi Jennifer,

You've got some great questions there, I hope I can get some answers to them. I am trying to mine some data to get you hard numbers. I have taken a look at our google analytics data and I see some evidence that people are using subscriptions to get to the site. Unfortunately I don’t see a way to figure out if they are going to forums or any other part of the site. My e-mail client is ranked the #8 referral source for 2017 (2.02% of all referrals). That has to be due to subscriptions. I do see several other e-mail servers listed and I imagine they are due to subscriptions. As this is a relatively new feature we hope it is one that will continue to grow.

I can provide some anecdotal evidence as to the utility of subscriptions. Personally, the subscription feature has been helpful to me because I now know when there is something posted on the site. We do not currently have an RSS feed so the addition of subscriptions has been a nice way to keep updated without always going to the site and sorting through everything to see what is new. I am certainly more likely to pay attention to forum topics or items I have put on the site, but I do try to reply to posts when I think I can add something to the discussion.

As for the BITeS features, the community is alerted through subscriptions and I always announce new BITeS posts through Twitter and Facebook. From the google analytics data is seems that Twitter is by far the most effective way to get people to the site (which I assume to be BITeS). For 2017 Twitter accounts for 80.8% of our social network referrals to the site and Facebook accounts for 11.7%.

rpendarvis's picture

I only teach online these days (retired in another state) and the resources are welcome.  It took some time to put them together.  They do seem more oriented toward intermediate or graduate classes but I expect they have more need of them.

Thanks - Richard

Thanks Richard,
We have not focused at the general/introductory chemistry level on purpose, although there are certainly materials on the site that are applicable to those courses. Part of what we learned from the survey of what is taught in inorganic chemistry has actually shaped our NSF proposal that is currently under review. In the next stage of the project we intend to focus on the foundation level inorganic chemistry courses. Now that we have a better understanding of what is actually taught in those courses, we have a better idea of what sorts of resources might be of use to the community. We hope to get a start on this at an upcoming workshop.

Jan Apotheker's picture

Dear Chip,

This is a brilliant initiative, sharing your teaching experiences and resources like this. I attended a presentation in SaltLake City during an ACS spring meeting and was impressed there. But it has developed enormously since then.

Congratulations on such a great succes.

Jan Apotheker, secretary Commitee Chemistry Education, IUPAC


Thanks Jan. I have been very fortunate to work with an incredible group of people. But even more important, our community has shared the vision of a few people and grown this project in ways that were unimaginable when VIPEr first hatched.

Hi Chip,

Thanks for contributing this article to the Newsletter.  I have a question concerning the content managment system, which you may or may not be the right person to ask.  

I looked into the source code and see the site is built on Drupal 7, which is what I expected.  Wasn't the original site Drupal 6 or earlier?  Are you planning to port to Drupal 8?

What my real question is, is how has Drupal worked out as a content management system, and what advice do you have for people running sites like this?  (Note, the CCCE Newsletter is also run on Drupal 7).  I note you use Grand Junction Design, do you know if they were used from the beginning?  Any advice or thoughts on the best and most economical way to host a resource like this?



Hi Bob,
I am not entirely the right person to be asking this, but I think I can give you a reasonable answer. We haven't always used Grand Junction Design, but we have always used another group for hosting the site. Prior to my time on the project the group worked with a technologist. Legend has it that in addition to helping us translate our ideas into a framework for the website, he passed on at least two incredibly important bits of wisdom. First, set up some kind of persistent chat (currently Skype) because if you keep flooding each other's e-mail this project will come to a screeching halt. Second, don't do the website building and maintenance yourselves. No matter the cost it is worth it. I must say that I think that foresight was profound. There is no way VIPEr would exist today if we had to do all of the design and and keep the site updated. So, it may not be the cheapest solution, but in terms of actually getting the site off the ground and your own sanity, I strongly recommend getting someone else to do it. And I must say, we have been thrilled with the work Grand Junction Design has done for us. I highly recommend them. As for the Drupal question, I know we did upgrade from at least Drupal 6 to 7 and (spoiler alert) we anticipate going to Drupal 8 at some point in the future. Had we been in charge of doing this, we would probably still be running Drupal -10.

Hi Chip,

I may be missing the obvious, but I tried to access some of the Problem Set Objects, , and I can't come up with any.  I did create a faculty account, although I am not sure that is the problem (I am logged in), but I was looking for some examples on problem sets.

Are those restricted to faculty?

Also, I was wondering, has anyone done anything with respect to setting forth any green chemistry metrics with the experiments?  For example, I note there are 20 hits for Inorganic Chemistry in UO's GEMS, , has any effort or thought been put into collaborating with green chemistry sites? Or is that being done, and is there a way to navigate VIPEr with those kinds of metrics?

Finally, has any of the material from LibreText been integrated into VIPEr?





These are all great ideas!
1. It sounds like you already have faculty status, but for others who wish to see the problem set questions: i) register on the site, ii) click on the box that request faculty status, and iii) wait, usually not very long, for someone on the leadership team to verify that you are indeed a faculty person and give you faculty permissions. Looking at the link you provided, it looks like you did a search on problem sets about nanochemistry. That is a very new category and it seems we currently don't have any problem sets in that area. With it being a new category we do need to review the existing materials to see if any should be classified as nanochemistry. In addition, I think you have inspired our next community challenge!
2. We met with the UO folks several years ago, but no one has connected our labs to their work. That would be great!
3. We have not done anything with LibreText. Like all good communities of practice, we rely on our participants to lead us in these important directions.

Thanks for the ideas!


I'm intrigued by the 'back-to-grad school' aspect.  Are these workshops held at ACS meetings or are they run at different schools on an ad hoc or seasonal basis?  

I am thinking of it from the perspective that it would provide professional development opportunities for those interested.  



Hi Jason,
The name stems from a couple of aspects of the workshops. First, they were all held at R1 schools (UNC, Penn St, Northwestern, Univ. of Washington and Michigan). Second, they typically had four long research presentations by top people in the field. That type of experience is something that typically happens more in grad school. Finally, these workshops were a pretty intense week over the summer in which we usually stayed in college dorms. So, that is the insider information of the evolution of the name.
I helped out at two of these workshops and they were great for professional development (even for the organizers). Sure the chemistry presented and the new learning objects that were developed were outstanding. But participants always commented on how much they learned about teaching. They really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people facing the same challenges they do. The participants learned so much from each other during these workshops, it really was a joy to be a part of. It is something we hope to be continuing into the future. And ideally, we will figure out a model to encoil more graduate students and post docs. We always had a few grad student/post doc participants from the home institutions, but it would be nice to expand that. It would be challenging to do this at an ACS meeting where they are already so many demands on time. We would certainly welcome any creative ideas as to how we might bring a workshop to future faculty.

Bob Belford's picture

Hi Chip,

I now have faculty status on VIPEr and can see the hidden documents, but note that the download links work, even if you do not have faculty status. To hide the URL, I will use a URL shortener to hash the key, and post it here, [deleted], and we can erase this after you respond.  But if I am correct, anyone can download that, even without an account.

I ran into a similiar problem with the Cheminformatics OLCC,, which is also on Drupal 7, and was hoping you had a solution for it, which is why I went in and tested this, but you have the same problem. Also, the URL that you create is autogenerated from the title, and so an astute student with minimal hacking skills could deduce it from the title of an assignment.  I would suggest a nonalgorithmic url generation for the keys. That said, having multiple authors uploading material does provide some non-uniformity in the URLs, but I have seen a common pattern, which is very logical, and deducible.

So my question is have you contacted "Grand Junction Design", and if they have a solution, could you share it with me (off list).  I would have thought this would deal with the "file" Field Type, and it would not be stored public, but that did not work for the OLCC, and our files like yours, are "hidden", but they are not restricted access.

FYI, my use-case is slightly different than yours, but could be of interest to the VIPEr community, as I use this to share copyrighted material with my class, and no one else, which I believe is still fair use, (except that I was hiding, not restricting).  In writing this comment I realized using a hashkey to generate the URL would be prudent, but restricting access is what is really needed.



This problem suggests an inherent flaw in Drupal, which is not extant in many other CMSes and Courseware Systems. Ultimately, I suggest that a better content management system with more solid and possibly fine-grained security be used. Based on the ones I've used from best fine-grained security going down, you should consider: Plone, Moodle, Joomla and last Wordpress. I have not delved into the access security in any other ones out there, but Plone is by far the most secure and most flexible for how you release things to others.



Sandra Porter's picture

You could implement better file securify by using the private files option in Drupal 7.  There's also a moldule that will give you the option to restrict downloading files by user role.

Wow, thank you all for the insight. We are contacting Grand Junction Design and scrambling to think about a solution to this major problem. We never would have known! Thanks so much. I'll attempt to get an update posted about this while the paper is still open.