An Ideal World: How We’d Like Things To Be
If we imagine that we had a magic wand that allowed us to solve educational problems beyond our direct area of influence (especially in regards to chemistry), we can see a world where students arrive to post-secondary education well prepared and unafraid of challenging topics.
As it stands now, students arrive at college not only with wildly different levels of preparedness but also with a baked-in set of fears and anxieties about chemistry. These fears can have a number of sources, from messaging that chemistry is incredibly difficult to anxiety around related subjects (such as mathematics).
Students without lab experience can be fearful of making embarrassing mistakes and struggle with a lack of familiarity with the equipment. Dr. James Caras, CEO of Catalyst Education, shares with findings from his student interviews, “Students are very intimidated. They’ll tell me when I interview them how they’re most terrified of their lab classes. They’re afraid of making very public mistakes. They’re afraid of hurting themselves or just breaking expensive equipment or glassware. And they really don’t feel prepared.”
Overcoming the Experience Gap
These same tools can help overcome the challenge stemming from students coming in with such significant differences in chemistry experience — some may have AP-level coursework from high school under their belt, whereas others may not have had a chemistry course since sophomore year. The quality of the chemistry education also varies strongly with each school’s faculty and resources.
The challenge then lies in bringing the less experienced students up to speed without boring your more advanced students. On the flip side, moving too quickly will leave lower-end students behind and with the risk of losing them altogether. As Dr. Donna Bassolino from The College of New Jersey tells us, “It’s so hard to keep them, we don’t want to lose the lower end kids… it would be nice to find some way to equalize [the field] or to bring the kids that are behind up to speed a little bit faster.”
Building adaptable courses around students’ needs and using tools that rely on familiar interfaces, such as mobile devices, can go a long way toward addressing this critical issue. Implementing active learning approaches such as flipping the classroom can create much stronger student engagement and help students come up to speed — when students can work together they can help each other and close those knowledge gaps. Meanwhile, leveraging educational technology helps to provide real-time feedback and guide students along problem-solving pathways.
Modernizing and Reshaping Chemistry Education
Chemistry education and materials, especially traditional textbooks (despite many expensive revisions), have not been significantly updated for many years. An important piece of the needed change must come in the form of updating our curriculum and implementing chemistry-specific edtech tools to modernize chemistry education.
Today’s students are digital natives — they have access to a plethora of self-directed learning resources to help them solve everyday problems. Leveraging this in the classroom allows students to use mediums they are familiar with to learn, from online videos to mobile apps. The need now is for more and better platforms to rise to the challenge of improving STEM education.
The wide adoption of Learning Management Systems (LMS) has improved how faculty manage their students and deliver course materials. As new edtech tools are created, they provide a far deeper benefit when they can integrate with these LMS’ to streamline content delivery and provide a direct view into student progress.
But edtech tools need to go beyond simply delivering content to students. They need to be accessible and offer an interface that engages students to maintain their attention and focus. Dr. James Caras comments that “students are digital natives but they can’t use Excel.” This represents a specific truth about how today’s students engage with technology — it needs to be free and easily available and engage them in both visual and relatable ways. In other words, students aren’t typically playing with spreadsheets on their mobile devices. But they are playing games, interacting with social platforms, and consuming a wide variety of media.
In order to modernize chemistry education and help level the playing field for students of varying educational backgrounds, we must aim for technology-centered solutions that meet students where they are. The next generation of edtech tools must be highly visual and interactive, giving students a game-like experience, while allowing instructors to easily create and adapt content as needed.
Reducing Barriers to Inspire Students in STEM
When students arrive already feeling defeated, they avoid STEM even when it interests them. To help create fertile ground for young minds, we need to help them overcome this intimidation through effective active learning strategies and engagement. When we lose diversity in STEM due to academic disparities, we lose the much-needed perspective that fuels true innovation. By reducing barriers and closing these gaps, students of every background can find a new love of, or foster an existing fascination with STEM.
These will be tomorrow’s problem solvers and leaders, and through strong innovation in the educational technology space, we can help these students overcome every hurdle and master even the most difficult and complex concepts in chemistry and beyond.