Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Computational Methods in General Chemistry: Perceptions of Programming, Prior Experience, and Student Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Computational Methods in General Chemistry: Perceptions of Programming, Prior Experience, and Student Outcomes

Article excerpt

Computational skills are becoming more and more important to STEM graduates and especially for future scientists, engineers, and biomedical personnel in solving problems of infectious diseases, global warming, changes in biodiversity, and sustainable energy consumption (Lee & Malyn-Smith, 2014). The National Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 778,000 new jobs in computer programming and related disciplines by 2020, but there will only be about 70,000 new computer science majors graduating from U.S. universities in that same time (Lockard & Wolf, 2012). In fact, large companies have already resorted to training employees to program in-house because of the severe shortage of a program-literate workforce (Orsini, 2013). Thus, it is essential that students learn computational skills early in their undergraduate careers to be a prepared workforce. One such avenue for teaching students how to program is by integrating programming in an introductory chemistry course. Computational chemistry involves the use of computer simulations and models to understand and solve complex problems (Justi & Gilbert, 2003). Unfortunately, many undergraduate programs only introduce computational methods in select upper level chemistry courses (Paselk & Zoellner, 2002) or only use the outputs of programs as part of students' problem solving (Gasyna & Rice, 1999) . Research on learning computer programming has demonstrated that prior experience can greatly influence student performance on computational tasks (Hwang, Shadiev, Wang, & Huang, 2012) as well as their persistence in computational fields (Carter, 2006). Consequently, college chemistry curricula need to provide early programming experiences with computational tools to help engage students in authentic practices.

Research has also suggested that students' perceptions of programming strongly relate to programming performance and can even be more predictive of success than prior academic or programming experience (Bergin & Reilly, 2005). Students can be apprehensive and even fearful of programming, leading to negative perceptions and hindering success (Rogerson & Scott, 2010). Additionally, simultaneously learning programming and chemistry concepts can be very overwhelming for students (National Research Council, 2000) and can contribute to negative self-perceptions. Providing the right amount of support for students learning programming within chemistry courses can be crucial to successfully integrating computational chemistry experiences. Moreover, giving students early experience with industry tools can familiarize students with the specific software and contribute to positive programming self-perception.

Thus, this study integrated experiences with a computational program and various kinds of instructional support into a first-year general laboratory course and explored connections between student perceptions of programming, prior experience with programming, and student outcomes. Specifically, this study used Mathematical, a computational program widely used in science, mathematics, and engineering. To our knowledge Mathematica has not been integrated into an introductory course for incoming freshmen or used to complement a laboratory curriculum in this way. The research questions driving this study are:

1. How do students' perceptions of programming change over the course of the semester?

2. What correlations exist between students' perceptions of programming, prior programming experience, and student outcomes?

3. What are students' perceptions of the instructional support associated with learning programming (lectures, packages, and video tutorials)?


Context and participants

At our institution, engineering students enroll in a separate general chemistry lab from nonengineering students. The engineering-specific course, CHEM 1621, incorporated Mathematica into the curriculum as described next. …

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