Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Transforming Discussion in General Chemistry with Authentic Experiences for Engineering Students

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Transforming Discussion in General Chemistry with Authentic Experiences for Engineering Students

Article excerpt

Undergraduate engineering education in the United States is in need of reform that addresses the recruitment and retention of a diverse population of students. Nationally, the dropout rate for students from engineering majors is high, estimated to be about 40% (Ohland et al., 2008), and the projected number of graduates is not adequate for meeting the needs of the workforce (Langdon, McKittrick, Beede, Khan, & Doms, 2011). In addition, the discipline is not attracting women and students from diverse backgrounds (National Science Foundation, 2015). For certain student populations, the undergraduate experience has been characterized as chilly, indicating a cold and harsh setting that requires special tools and protection for survival (Banning & Folkestad, 2012). Thus, reform needs to equally attend to the makeup of the student body as well as the quality of their experience in the courses that support the major.

Change Chem is a curriculum model created to enact such a reform to address the issue of retention. It uses collaborative problem-based learning with model-eliciting activities to transform the discussion section of general chemistry to better retain students who are engineering majors. The study reported here is an evaluation of the first phase of design and development of Change Chem and was guided by the following research questions: (a) What influence does Change Chem have on student perceptions of learning chemistry? (b) What influence does Change Chem have on self-efficacy for learning chemistry? and (c) How do participants perceive the design projects and other components of the intervention model? The design is grounded in a situated perspective on learning and involves the application of cognitive apprenticeship as the theoretical framework.

Theoretical framework

Situated learning is based on the premise that knowledge cannot be separated from the context of its origin (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Thus, situated learning is a process of apprenticeship, whereby social interaction supports problem solving, imitation, and engagement in authentic activity (Johri & Olds, 2011). Herein, learning opportunities are dependent on the context, use of available resources, and emphasis on social processes and participation over transmission and receipt of knowledge. For Change Chem, the work activities of a real-world engineer represent the sociocultural context, and authenticity is defined by the degree to which these activities represent this tradition. Thus, learning is more than an accumulation of knowledge; rather, it is a transformation of students from novice to full membership into the community of practicing engineers.

Change Chem targets the retention of students by focusing their work on authentic collaboration and learning of chemistry in context, which is theorized to leverage student interest to build personal identity with being an engineer (Capobianco, 2006), as well as the necessary efficacy for persisting with challenging coursework (Krapp & Prenzel, 2011). The use of collaboration, in lieu of competition or individualized learning, is a documented strategy for supporting social interdependence and achievement (Johnson & Johnson, 2013) and has proven effective for supporting women in engineering (Driscoll, Zawojewski, & Stahura, 2008). Team-based collaborative learning has also been shown to support the retention of women in chemistry (Cooper, Cox, Nammouz, Case, & Stevens, 2008) as well as minority students across the STEM disciplines (Drane, Micari, & Light, 2014).

A model-eliciting activity (MEA) is a proven form of learning task that involves collaborative, model-based learning in authentic STEM contexts. MEAs are "open-ended, realistic, client-driven problems that require the creation or adaptation of a mathematical model for a given situation" (Diefes-Dux, Hjalmarson, Miller, & Lesh, 2008, p. 17). Created by applying five design principles, an MEA requires students to create, test, and refine a model for a realistic situation, then present their findings as a deliverable to a potential client (Table 1). …

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