Professional Learning

A Year for Chemistry

Blogger Eric Brunsell interviews the producer of Chemistry Now, a free resource for chemistry teachers.

February 11, 2011

I am from Wisconsin . . . about 30 miles from Green Bay. I bet you can guess what has been on my mind this week. You got it - Chemistry!

What better way to celebrate Super Bowl XLV Champion Green Bay Packers than a video tribute to the chemistry of cheese (Not familiar with the "Cheesehead Nation" Packer fans? Check out these pictures and this song).

There is a bit more to this post than football. The UN has declared 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry Activities throughout the year hope to re-introduce chemistry to people throughout the world - to show that chemistry is inseparable from our lives and from modern society. To help celebrate the International Year of Chemistry, NBC Learn and the National Science Foundation have launched Chemistry Now, a series of rich media resources that can be used in, and out, of the classroom to engage kids in chemistry. To better explain these resources, I interviewed Beth Nissen, the Senior Editor and Producer of Chemistry Now. I also interviewed Sharon Padget, a high school science teacher who is using the resources with her students.

Beth Nissen, Senior Producer NBC Learn

Q. What is the purpose of having an "International Year of Chemistry?"

A. This year was proclaimed the "International Year of Chemistry" by the United Nations, with the purpose of increasing general public understanding of chemistry and its importance; sparking more interest in chemistry in students from university level to middle school -- and also celebrating the role of women in chemistry: 2011 is the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie's Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Dozens of the world's most prominent science organizations are supporting IYC 2011 -- including the National Science Foundation, which successfully partnered with NBC Learn last year to create online video resources on "The Science of the Winter Olympic Games," and the "Science of NFL Football." We've joined up again on "Chemistry Now," a weekly video and multimedia content series that is being released weekly during the spring and fall school terms in 2011.

Q. What role does Chemistry Now and NBC Learn play in supporting the goals of IYC?

A. Chemistry has a reputation as a "hard" subject, and it is a difficult science for many students -- and adults, even adults with college degrees -- to understand, because it's based on abstract concepts, about what it's impossible to see, like the structure of matter and interactions on a molecular scale. "Chemistry Now" content is designed to intrigue and engage users by linking the abstract and the unseen to everyday applications and real-world occurrences, in a highly visual way, using video and animation.

And in a series of profiles of "21st Century Chemists," we're focusing on younger, mid-career chemists, several of whom are women, who are working on especially "cool" and significant research -- like the Purdue University chemist studying the glue mussels secrete underwater, so he can synthesize a wet-setting adhesive that could be used as a surgical glue or new bone cement. Or the Iowa State chemist -- she's a former clothing designer -- who's using chemistry to increase the efficiency of converting sunlight to energy. Only a few of these researchers knew in middle school or high school or even college that they would end up working in chemistry. Their individual stories about what hooked them are exactly the tales of exploration, adventure and mystery-solving that can -- and do -- inspire others.

Q. Can you provide some examples of the resources that are provided each week?

A. Each week, we have at least one original video that makes that link between the abstract and the real-world -- so we look at the chemistry of soap and the chemistry of chocolate; the chemistry of plastics and the chemistry of the synthetic dyes that make your clothes and your shoes and your sheets the color they are.

We have a series called "Cheeseburger Chemistry," where we look at the chemistry behind different components of an average cheeseburger: the denaturing of proteins in the turning liquid milk into solid cheese; the role of ethylene in ripening tomatoes; the gas and sugar reactions in the bread dough used to make the bun.

We also put into each week's "Chemistry Now" content "bundle" any current events news stories related to chemistry -- like the story in early January on new federal guidelines for amounts of fluoride in drinking water -- plus relevant news stories from the multi-decade treasury of the NBC News archives. We include original source documents and artifacts from the collections of the Chemical Heritage Foundation -- like a Victorian-era drawing depicting the H2O molecule as a larger fairy flanked by two smaller fairies -- plus photographs, charts, graphs and other data displays.

Q. As you put together the resources, what steps do you take to ensure that you are providing teachers with high quality materials?

A. The original ideas, the scripts, the graphics and the animations for each of the original videos, are all reviewed and approved by a set of advisors working for or with the National Science Foundation -- several of whom are or were longtime teachers. All news stories meet the exacting standards of NBC News. And each week's content is connected to two related lesson plans -- one aimed at middle school level, one aimed at high school level -- written by curriculum specialists with the National Science Teachers Association.

Q. How do you envision Chemistry Now being used in the classroom?

A. With the late-January launch of "Chemistry Now" -- and the International Year of Chemistry -- we envision these free resources being used in classrooms in all the the same ways NBC Learn subscribers are using the videos now: as live-streamed class-starters or short topic introductions that immediately engage today's visual learners; as highly-produced and concise explanations -- and visualizations -- of complex ideas; and as research resources for students working on inquiry-based research projects.

Q. What benefits do you see from using media like this in the classroom?

A. Study after research study has linked everything from low comprehension of material to high drop-out rates to the same thing: students don't see how what they're learning relates, in any way, to anything in real life -- let alone anything of significance.

This is the core advantage to "educational" videos made by the news reporters and producers at NBC Learn, which is the education arm of NBC News: relevance and significance are part of the DNA of every news story -- if a story isn't relevant to people's lives, it doesn't make it into the newscast. And unless it's breaking news, a story that isn't well and clearly told isn't going to make it either. We work hard to tell a story in each of the NBC Learn videos, and to make that story character-driven -- which isn't always easy to do when your subject is chiral molecules.

Q. The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recently released a report K-12 STEM Education. One of the recommendations was to provide opportunities for children outside of the classroom. Do you see Chem Now being used in these situations? Do you have any specific examples?

A. All of the resources of "Chemistry Now" are free and available online, 24/7, at [in front of the subscription wall], to anyone with an Internet connection -- whether that's via one's personal laptop, the family computer at home, or on a computer at the public library. Our best information on use, in and outside the classroom, comes from teachers in schools that subscribe to the full array of NBC Learn resources: they tell us that when they assign the watching of NBC Learn videos as homework, followed by a quiz on content, both homework completion rates and quiz scores markedly improve.

They tell us students with access to NBC Learn videos are more likely to use them as research and source information than YouTube videos or other videos of less-known provenance -- and cite them correctly. (There's a citation generator as part of the metadata on every piece of content).

Also, we've heard from teachers, administrators and PTAs that the videos are both useful to, and appreciated by, parents trying to work with their children on homework: they can both watch these videos, and learn and understand together. Lots of parents don't recall -- or never learned -- what "covalent bonds" are, or even precisely what molecules are. The "Chemistry Now" resources can also refresh or enhance the knowledge base of science teachers who may not themselves have science degrees.

Q. What suggestions do you have for teachers as they begin thinking about how to use Chem Now in their classroom?

A. Our greatest challenge in producing these weekly series was trying to pair them in some meaningful way to uncounted general science and high school chemistry curricula -- teaching different chemistry concepts, in different sequences, to greatly different "prior knowledge" levels.

In the end, we did what news programs do with feature stories: we "pegged" content to anniversaries and holidays -- so the Chemistry of Chocolate story will go up on the site the week of Valentine's Day, and the Chemistry of Household Cleaners will be posted in the spring, with a reference to Spring Cleaning, and so on.

We'd invite teachers to sample the full array of content in the "Chemistry Now" bundles -- those already posted, and the new ones posted each week -- and consider ways to use what they find there, even if it doesn't match exactly with the set curriculum for the week. Teachers can use these resources in class -- or assign them as after-class viewing -- to review what the class may already have covered, or to tee-up subjects or concepts yet to be introduced. Or just to spark a connection, any connection, between chemistry and all that we see and are and experience and know -- and don't yet know, but can still discover.

Sharon Padget, Ottumwa (Iowa) High School

Q. How are you integrating Chem Now into your class?

A. In our Integrated Science course we are focusing on the content requirements of the Iowa Core and 21st Century skill in a very hands-on and technology rich environment. We use the Chem Now video section to introduce units and other Chem Now content to help kids design inquiry based labs that they perform in class. The videos provide the opportunity for students to fill knowledge gaps they may have in a content area which they may have some knowledge but maybe not the "whole" picture. The videos are also really good at placing the content into a real world context. I also like that the current events lessons come from a trusted source (NSTA).

Q. What do you see as the benefit of using resources like Chem Now with your teaching?

A. Chem Now gives my students more access to the world around them. It also allows for more student directed learning and gives students autonomy over how they learn. It offers a wide variety of topics in one place is great for kids. It cuts down on the time spent researching and can be accessed by using any Internet device 24/7. Learning can take place outside of the classroom.

Q. How have your students reacted to Chem Now?

A. Student see it as a useful tool. They like the idea of finding things all in one place. This along with other technology we use makes it engaging for them and it fits with the way today's kids learn.

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