Ellen Yezierski in her lab.

$1.9M NSF grant will help teachers stimulate students’ imaginations to improve learning of chemistry

A water molecule, H2O. Liquid water, H2O(I). Covalently bonded molecules held together by intermolecular hydrogen bonds.
An example of the VisChem dynamic visualizations.

With a new $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Miami University’s Ellen Yezierski aims to help high school chemistry teachers prepare students to become more scientifically literate.

Her project has the potential to impact up to 80,000 high school chemistry students from a broad range of socioeconomic, geographic and racial backgrounds, Yezierski said. It will focus on traditionally underserved groups, including English language learners.

Yezierski, a chemistry education researcher, was awarded the five-year grant for her design research in the teaching and learning of high school chemistry through the use of dynamic visualizations — “VisChem” molecular animations designed by Roy Tasker.

These video animations of the molecular world can bring a new dimension to learning chemistry.

The project will develop teachers’ knowledge and skills to help their students build molecular-level mental models to explain chemical events, Yezierski said.

Currently, chemistry education overemphasizes description and symbols rather than learning to explain chemical phenomena.

Students becoming informed adults for a changing world

Yezierski will recruit 64 high school chemistry teachers from across the country to participate in the professional development program.

They will learn how to effectively use storyboarding and the VisChem approach to lead students from describing chemical phenomena, such as reactions and physical changes, to understanding and explaining their causes.

One goal is to help high school students become more scientifically literate. The focus is on learning how to reason with chemistry concepts and principles, rather than on memorizing facts, Yezierski said.

Ultimately, students will be better prepared to understand science in areas requiring molecular-level perspectives, and to become informed adults in a changing world, Yezierski said. Some areas include understanding the role of carbon dioxide in climate change, changes in DNA in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), antibiotic resistance and drinking water quality.

VisChem Institutes: Molecular animations, storyboarding for understanding

An example of the VisChem dynamic visualizations. The images from video animations of liquid water (above) and boiling water (below) show differences in molecular activity of different physical states of water (images by Roy Tasker from VisChem.com.au).
Three teacher cohorts — one cohort each over the next three summers — will attend the all-expenses-paid VisChem Institute (VCI) on campus developed by Yezierski.

The institutes will be taught by Yezierski and project consultant Roy Tasker, creator of the VisChem dynamic animation system. “Animations of the molecular world can stimulate the imagination, bringing a new dimension to learning chemistry,” Tasker said.

For instance, few students have a “feel” for the average distance between ions (charged particles) in a solution of a given concentration, according to Tasker.

“VisChem animations of ionic solutions bring meaning to the magnitude of the number expressing molarity (concentration of a chemical in solution), in much the same way that people have a ‘feel’ for the length of one meter,” Tasker said.

Design research: Supports teachers’ learning

Yezierski’s design research involves studying how to support teacher groups in learning chemistry content and instructional methods.

Teacher cohorts will be supported during the following year after they attend the VCI. Some will be provided with software to run their own molecular simulations. Eventually all teachers will develop and grow a community of skilled practitioners using the VisChem approach.

In their classrooms, teachers will wear tiny GoPro cameras to collect video clips of their teaching. The clips will provide data about what teaching methods are more effective than others.

Those clips will be studied and evaluated by Yezierski and her team to inform and improve the design of future VCIs and improve chemistry teaching with molecular visualizations.

The time is right

Yezierski has been conducting chemistry education and teacher professional development research for the past 16 years. She is nationally recognized for conducting groundbreaking research that improved instruction and student learning as a direct result of Target Inquiry, a visionary professional development model for high school chemistry teachers.

She has a long history with Tasker, having based her doctoral dissertation research on the use of VisChem dynamic visualizations.

She has recently started to see chemistry teachers become more open to/interested in incorporating dynamic visualizations and storyboarding in their teaching.

This approach aligns with the newest Next Generation Science Standards and the recently updated AP chemistry curriculum, Yezierski said.

The team

Yezierski, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is also director of Miami’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

She was named an American Chemical Society Fellow in 2016.

An experienced high school chemistry teacher, she taught chemistry for seven years before earning her doctorate from Arizona State University in 2003.

Her research team will include a postdoctoral fellow, two graduate students, several undergrad students and Tasker.

Tasker is a renowned Australian chemistry education researcher. He received the Prime Minister’s Award for Australian University Teacher of the Year in 2011 and the prestigious Australian National Senior Teaching Fellowship in 2014.

He created the VisChem approach in the 1990s, and since then the dynamic visualizations have been adopted by educators and textbook authors internationally.

Written by Susan Meikle, University News Writer/Editor, University Communications and Marketing, Miami University. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photo of Ellen Yezierski by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. VisChem dynamic visualization by Roy Tasker from VisChem.com.au.


A kid with his pants rolled up to the knees is wading in a creek. He's bent over, with his hands in the water, like he's picking something up.

Grant to support development of inquiry-based STEM activities model

Materials developed by the research team to be used in the classroom.
Miami University researchers have received a grant to support development of a graphic novel format for inquiry-based instruction for science education.

The Ohio Department of Education has awarded a grant of $93,242.15 to Miami University College of Arts and Science and College of Education, Health and Society for their project entitled “Writing Inquiry Stories to Explore Science (WISE Science).” Led by Miami University’s Center for Chemistry Education, this partnership will provide professional development for Ohio 6th to 8th grade educators in partnering Middletown City Schools.

Building upon the Center for Chemistry Education’s efforts during the 2014-2015 school year, the WISE Science project provides a model for teachers to use in their classroom inquiry-based teaching and learning activities. Last year’s process used inquiry stories and student characters to design investigations. In their inquiry stories, the students were asked to notice something in their daily lives and, after discussion, develop a testable question and experiment. The story the kids created became a draft for an experiment the students could visualize.

While the concept of a written story was well-received, based on teacher feedback and collaboration, a graphic novel or comic-book style reading material emerged as the solution to engage reluctant readers. So, the Center for Chemistry Education transformed the science inquiry stories into comic book style readings. “Basically, this is a project that uses a graphic novel format in inquiry-based instruction for science education,” described Dr. Tammy Schwartz, Department of Teacher Education’s Instructor and Director of the Urban Teaching Cohort. These graphic inquiry stories were designed to step students through the scientific process: posing a testable question, designing an experiment and collecting data, and using results to make a claim with evidence.

The collaborators of this project hope to foster an energetic response from urban schools that traditionally shy away from an inquiry based curriculum. The Center for Chemistry Education will train teachers in urban classrooms to move away from seatwork, explicit directions, and tests towards a more critical-thinking environment. By doing so, their goal is to improve student learning and results on state tests and other key indicators. “It has become clear to me that the [inquiry process] helps [the students] solidify what they have learned and emphasizes those big ideas of science,” said middle school special education teacher Janet Frasher.

Over the coming summer, a group of 6th to 8th grade teacher leaders will participate in a summer program to learn inquiry teaching skills using comic style inquiry and magazine style content readings. They will then partner with Center for Chemistry Education staff throughout the school year to create Inquiry Cycle lessons to support their physical, earth, space, and biological science lessons in the classroom. Additional science and language arts teachers as well as intervention specialists will learn about and use the Inquiry Cycle lessons developed by the teacher leaders. Middletown City Schools anticipate that reading improvement will result in improved performance on the state assessments.

This award is effective January 20, 2016 through May 31, 2017, and is directed by Susan Hershberger in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Jennifer Blue in the Department of Physics, and Tammy Schwartz in the Department of Teacher Education.

Written by Andrea Rahtz, Copywriter/Digital Marketing Specialist, College of Education, Health, & Society, Miami University. Item originally appeared here.

Kid in the creek photo by Camp ASCCA via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

Micro-focusing an Argon-ion laser onto a graphene sample

Interdisciplinary team works to engineer success

A professor works with a group of students in a physics classroom. The students are writing on a whiteboard and using a calculator.
If an intervention being developed by an interdisciplinary team at Miami University proves effective, more engineering students may pass early physics courses, like this one taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Dilupama Divaratne.

According to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly half of students who begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM fields – drop out of that pipeline before earning a degree.

Among several factors the NCES cites is “performing poorly in STEM classes relative to non-STEM classes.” As a physics instructor at Miami University, Jennifer Blue has seen this firsthand.

Blue reports that while a majority of introductory engineering students at Miami pass their first-year physics classes, about 20% earn a “D,” “F,” or “W.”

“It makes us so sad when people fail our classes,” the associate professor says.

In part, that sorrow stems from the knowledge that an early negative experience is often enough to cause students to give up on the dream of becoming an engineer. That’s not what Blue wants.

It’s not what Brian Kirkmeyer wants either. As Assistant Dean for Student Success in Miami’s College of Engineering and Computing, it’s his job to help keep engineering students’ dreams alive.

“It serves no purpose for students’ dreams to be squashed,” he says. “That doesn’t get us more engineers and computer scientists. We want physics to be a course that sets students up for a successful STEM-based academic – and, ultimately, post-academic – career.”

Kirkmeyer’s sentiment is consistent with the goals of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Education program.

“The NSF knows that there’s a crisis in America with engineering, that we don’t have enough engineers, and that there are all sorts of places in the pathway to engineering where there are problems,” says Amy Summerville, who is the lead investigator on a $368,000 grant from the program.

In collaboration with Blue and Kirkmeyer, Summerville, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Psychology, is working to develop an intervention to improve engineering students’ success in physics courses.

Summerville’s area of expertise is counterfactual thinking, or thinking about how things might have been, as opposed to how things actually are. According to Summerville, counterfactual thinking is important not only because it helps us identify the causes of negative events, but also because it helps us set intentions for the future.

For instance, she says, someone who’s been involved in a car accident might think, “If only I hadn’t been texting, I wouldn’t have had the accident.” That thought can lead that person to decide to leave their phone in their bag the next time they get behind the wheel.

Summerville thinks that helping engineering students who experience an early setback in a physics class – say receiving a “D” or “F” on the first exam – think about what they might have done differently before that exam could improve their future performance.

“We know,” says physics instructor Blue, “that students aren’t all doing the things that we desperately wish they would do, like completing their homework, coming to class, asking for help, going to office hours.”

The solution Summerville imagines is a worksheet that physics instructors would give to students when they hand back the first exam. The worksheet would ask students a series of questions about how they prepared for the exam and encourage them to reflect on their performance. Then, critically, the worksheet would ask students to generate ideas about what they could do differently to prepare for the next exam.

If Summerville’s intervention proves effective, it would have a significant advantage over many other interventions that have been tried in the past.

“Lots of engineering programs have tried really elaborate, really expensive ways of addressing this – changing pedagogy, creating cohorts, creating all sorts of new administrative systems,” says Summerville. “And what this might allow us to do is help students better take advantage of all the resources that are already there, with almost no additional investment.”

That prospect has intrigued other engineering educators, including members of the project’s advisory board, who work at some of the region’s biggest and most prestigious engineering schools. Still in the first year of their three-year project, the team already has invitations to give talks or lead workshops at The Ohio State University, Purdue University, and Indiana University. Even institutions farther away, like the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and Texas A&M University, have expressed interest.

While she’s excited about the interest her team’s approach has generated, Summerville cautions that their worksheet isn’t magic, and that it’s important for educators to understand the characteristics of their particular students and to take into account the specific circumstances they face.

“We’re figuring out what works at Miami,” she says. “And there may be important differences between us and other universities.”

One difference, Blue notes, is that Miami students tend to be better prepared than many students at other institutions.

“When I talk to colleagues at other universities, they say, ‘Well, if only our students could do Algebra I material, they might survive,’” Blue says. “Our students can do the math. They’re totally qualified to be there. But they didn’t have to do all this stuff to get ‘A’s in high school, most of them, so they don’t always realize what it’s going to take.”

By delivering talks and leading workshops Summerville hopes to help engineering educators understand the science behind the intervention, so that they can use it to guide students to take ownership of the behaviors that influence their individual academic success. There’s a huge difference for nearly everyone, she says, between being told what to do and making your own decisions.

Kirkmeyer agrees that’s key. “Self-efficacy’s a powerful thing,” he says.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Physics classroom photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services. Argon-ion laser photo by University of Exeter via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.