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Virtual lab wins prestigious prize awarded by Science

Students in introductory chemistry classes often start off with learning how to balance chemical equations. The educational message, according to Carnegie Mellon University chemistry professor David Yaron, seems to be, "if you take in this stuff that's not very interesting, you may get to use it later."

Aiming to substitute that approach with activities that allow students to design and carry out experiments more like real chemists, Yaron and some of his colleagues in the field developed the ChemCollective, virtual laboratories and online activities for introductory chemistry students. Because of their innovation and effectiveness as teaching tools, the software and corresponding Web site have been chosen to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE). Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit Science society.

With virtual experiments such as one that allows students to use chemistry concepts to solve a murder in a research group whose work focuses on an antitoxin for spider bites, the ChemCollective offers the drama and intrigues of chemistry to students early on, Yaron says.

"I hope there are some students who don't think they're interested in chemistry or don't think they're good at chemistry who might get drawn in," he says.

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) is intended to single out the very best online materials freely available to science educators. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often under duress, into something new. It also refers to the intention that the winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite the many challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each award recipient, explaining the winning project. The article about the ChemCollective will be published on April 30.

"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts. "We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding online resources reach a wider audience. Each winning Web site will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to valuable free online resources."

Yaron grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and says he was driven to find a career that would be "fun and interesting" by a high-school stint of working for a carnival, where he felt he didn't fit in and the hours were long and dull. Oddly, he could have been one of the students who missed the allure of science if he hadn't watched a PBS television series about Albert Einstein that made physics seem "really cool and exciting." Then wanting to major in physics, he ended up at Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where the offerings in chemistry were stronger.

Hired in computational chemistry by Carnegie Mellon, Yaron is doing the modeling for an intriguing and timely technology: the development of paint that can convert solar energy into electricity. He also teaches one course per semester, as well as constantly updating the ChemCollective, which was first released under another name in 1999.

The idea behind the software and Web site was to add to the textbook problems that are inevitably assigned to beginning chemistry students as homeworkand therefore to engage them in problem-solving that would more closely resemble the real-world activities of chemists. Yaron looked at the usual way in which introductory chemistry was taught and concluded that little of it would allow a student to understand an article about chemistry in the New York Times science pages or Scientific American, or even the descriptions of chemistry work that had won Nobel Prizes. He thought introductory chemistry education should be restructured, so students would experience "how chemists explain things, how they build things, how they analyze what's inside things," he says. With the ChemCollective's Virtual Lab, there was a freedom for students to take a given question, design an experiment, and carry it out.

"The problem with learning chemistry from a textbook is that many of the concepts presented are abstract and difficult for students to connect to real-world experiences," says Melissa McCartney, an editorial fellow at Science. "The ChemCollective aims to enhance chemistry education by providing online materials that allow students to use the facts and equations found in their textbooks in ways that resemble the conduct of practicing chemists, making the design and interpretation of experiments an integral part of learning chemistry."

Because the ChemCollective software is distributed for free, it's hard to quantify how much it is used. However, the associated Web site is "always being used," Yaron says. Last year, the Virtual Lab was operated more than 100,000 times from the Web site and downloaded more than 25,000 times. Furthermore, homework that included the ChemCollective was extremely effective as a teaching tool, according to testing. In a study of the technology, about half of the learning that occurred throughout an introductory course was attributable to the ChemCollective.

Yaron says he anticipates a boost in the ChemCollective's popularity, particularly among scientists, as a result of winning the SPORE contest.

"Having a two-page article in Science will cause people who didn't know about us to take a look," he says, "and those who knew a little to learn more."

Yaron says that as he looks at chemistry's future, he sees all kinds of interesting opportunities. "Green chemistry," or developing chemical technology "in a better, safer way," has changed the field such that "a lot of questions in chemistry that were solved aren't considered solved anymore," Yaron says.

"Not only is that important," he says, "it's going to be really fun and interesting."


Contact: Natasha Pinol
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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