my faculty experience

The Cutting Edge of Chemistry Instruction

Step inside Professor Cheryl Coolidge's Organic Chemistry I class, and you may see something a little unusual for a physical science course. Students are scattered in clusters around the room as they discuss and solve the day's assignment. At one table, Coolidge coddles a molecular structure, as she helps students understand reactive intermediates.

A new way of teaching chemistry is creeping into the classroom, and it couldn't have come too early for Cheryl Coolidge, an associate professor in the Natural Sciences Department.

“Chemists stink at teaching chemistry,” Coolidge told her colleagues at an informal campus discussion about faculty research. “We've been teaching chemistry the same way forever, primarily in the lecture format, forever,” Coolidge says. “The result has been failure.”

Coolidge, who teaches foundation and upper-level chemistry courses, feels confident that the new method she's recently adopted engages students and makes the physical sciences easier to understand. She's also hopeful that the participatory method will attract more students to the discipline.

Changing the Rules

Coolidge began using the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) approach with students during the 2004-2005 academic year. In traditional chemistry and physics college courses, professors lecture about the subject material. When educators adopt POGIL methods, students become active participants in a classroom.

While Colby-Sawyer doesn't offer degrees in chemistry or physics, foundation chemistry courses are required for the biology major and recommended for other disciplines. Coolidge believes that integrating POGIL exercises in her chemistry courses benefits students.

During days in which Coolidge uses guided-inquiry learning, she'll draw students' names from a hat to assign them to groups. Groups generally have no more than four students in them, and Coolidge finds they work best when there is a blend of ability levels. Rather than lecture to students about the day's topic, such as the periodic table, she provides groups with a handout or set of exercises to complete to learn the lesson.

In Chemistry 101, for example, students may be provided a handout with the periodic table and be asked to complete a series of questions based on the table and their knowledge of chemical properties.

“This encourages students to learn through critical thinking rather than just having me transmit information to them. They also learn how to work as a team, skills they'll use in work settings,” Coolidge says.

“We're not spoon fed”

Students enrolled in her Organic Chemistry I class in the fall of 2005 were guinea pigs for Coolidge when she introduced the new method a year earlier. Many of them appreciated the alternative way of learning.

“We have to think more analytically,” David Maliszewski '07 said of the group-learning exercises. Carolyn Wilson '06 said that it's good to expect students to solve answers on their own. Like her classmates, Arin Henry believed she and her peers benefit from the teamwork.

“We're not spoon fed. We work through the topics. We get help if we need it, but she's not just giving us the information,” said Henry '07.

“Now we've got five heads together thinking things through,” says Chris Huyler '08. “I think we learn more.”