Independent Research Projects in General Chemistry Classes as an Introduction to Peer-Reviewed Literature: An Independent Research Project Is Used in a General Chemistry Course to Expose Students to Peer-Reviewed Literature and to Develop Their Oral and Written Communication Skills

Article excerpt

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Numerous studies have been carried out to determine the best practices in facilitating student learning of chemistry, including the use of undergraduate research (McIntosh 2001), the benefits of collaborative learning (Cooper et al.1990; Cooper 1995), and the importance of writing as a tool for learning (Light 2001). Peer-reviewed literature in science transmits the excitement and the methods of the scientific endeavor in a way that most textbooks do not, and has been used to enhance the learning process in higher-level classes (Baldwin 2003; Gallagher and Adams 2002; Shibley and Milakofsky 2001). Cooperative learning to introduce undergraduates to professional literature in a communication course has been thoroughly studied (Fortner 1999). Undergraduate literature research, collaborative learning, and writing as a tool for learning are combined in the project described in this paper.

The independent bibliographic research project embedded in a general chemistry course described in this paper starts with a reflection period, progresses through individual and group stages, and culminates in a poster session modeled on scientific meetings. This project allowed students to engage in research at an introductory level, pose their own questions, and perform bibliographic research to find information. Students were exposed to peer-reviewed literature from science and engineering journals. While students in chemistry courses usually write for the instructor, a requirement that they create posters communicating research shifted the audience from instructor to peers.

Peer-reviewed papers served as a role model for these communications. Students were required to connect their chosen topic to the structure and dynamics of matter at the atomic level, a process that demanded considerable higher-order thinking. This requirement was introduced at the very beginning of the process, when students were asked to provide the name and formula of at least one compound or molecule in their initial presentation. Subsequently, a series of stages helped students develop oral and written communication skills, while providing feedback on their scientific inquiry. This activity, which was carried out during a regular semester-long chemistry course in addition to conventional class meetings and evaluations, connected chemistry with students' interests, helped develop teamwork skills, and provided a nontraditional component to student evaluations.

The student sample

This project was assessed over two semesters of general chemistry courses at Penn State Berks, a small college of 2,400 students in the Penn State University system, and included a total of five sections taught by three instructors (three overlapping courses in the fall and two in the spring). Course enrollment varied from 40 to 60 students per section, with three weekly class meetings of 50 minutes each. Students were enrolled in many different majors (e.g., science, engineering, and kinesiology) and there was a large percentage of nonresidential students. The course did not include a laboratory section, although some students were concurrently enrolled in general chemistry laboratory courses.

Activities

The project consisted of groups of students researching a topic in chemistry and presenting their findings in a poster session. The project was structured to allow multiple opportunities for the provision of feedback to the participants throughout the semester. An introduction to the project and a timeline were provided with the syllabus on the first day of class. The following stages included formulating an idea, a period of group organization, an action plan, a progress report, and the final poster session.

Idea formulation

In the seventh week of the semester, students were required to present a written idea about their research. At this stage, the work was done on an individual basis to ensure that students had gone through the process of reflecting on the content of the course and making a connection with some topic that they considered to be relevant or interesting. …