Chemistry Education Research in the Towns Group


Visualizing the Chemistry of Climate Change

This project seeks to develop and disseminate a series of interactive web-based digital learning objects to help first year undergraduate chemistry students visualize and understand the chemistry underlying global climate change. Developed in response to documented misconceptions, the interactive digital learning objects will help to fill a systemic hole identified by urgent calls for climate science literacy. Recognizing that interdisciplinary understanding of complex systems is fundamental to understanding modern science, these digital learning objects will also provide "best-practice" resources to support chemistry instructors in adopting active-learning pedagoties that situate cognition in authentic science practice and globally important contexts. In addition to development and implementation we are focused on developing methods of evaluation of student learning associated with this project including a Chemistry of Climate Science Misconceptions Instrument.


Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratories

There exists a rich literature regarding the content and pedagogy of laboratory, both in chemistry and in related disciplines such as physics. The scientific community has a strong belief in the inherent value of laboratory work because it offers direct experience with collecting and analyzing data from the physical world. However, there is little in the research literature to examine the student's perspective on laboratory work, the faculty's perspective, and the correspondence between the two. We have embarked on an NSF-funded investigation of the faculty perspectives of undergraduate laboratory including faculty goals for laboratory, the array of strategies faculty implement in the name of those goals, and the assessments faculty utilize to measure the extent to which they meet those goals. As this project moves towards conclusion, we will focus on the student perspective of laboratory. Ultimately the faculty and student perspectives will be compared and the correspondence will be explored to inspire new ways of considering the goals for laboratory, the curriculum, and the assessments used to determine student understanding.


Representational Competence in Biochemistry

We are interested in students' understanding of external representations (ERs) used in biochemistry. Biochemistry in the classroom and as a field is filled with ERs of biomolecules. Students are expected to develop the ability to interpret these representations based upon their conceptual knowledge. To determine what types of ERs are actually used in classrooms we have carried out a naturalistic study resulting in the Taxonomy of External Representations (TOER). We have used this taxonomy to describe actual classroom practices. In addition we have embarked on research to uncover student understanding of protein multiple representations for carbonic anhydrase and the K+ channel, and connections they express between them. We are using Anderson and Schönborn's R-C-M model to code these interviews. This model focuses on how scientists and students reason (R) with concepts (C) and the mode (M) of the diagram to interpret it and make sense of it.


Student Understanding of Mathematical Expressions in Physical Chemistry

Physical chemistry has long been a passion of Dr. Towns. One of our groups NSF funded projects in investigates the development of student understanding of mathematical equations in physical chemistry. We use an emergent research methodology from mathematics education research known as Toulmin analysis. This approach uses Toulmin's argumentation scheme as a way of documenting and analyzing activities that take place in an interactive classroom where discussion takes place. The approach will be adapted from mathematics, where it has been used in differential equations classrooms, to chemistry, where it will be used to analyze interactions among students working in Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) physical chemistry classrooms. The findings will help explain the ways students translate mathematical equations and symbols into descriptions of macroscopic and microscopic systems. Instruments from physics education research will be adapted for physical chemistry and implemented within the Physical Chemistry Online and POGIL communities to compare student understanding of mathematical equations across levels of mathematical preparation, and across classrooms where different pedagogies are used.


NSF funded Projects

  • Collaborative Research: A conference to promote the integration of research on undergraduate mathematics, physics, and chemistry education", NSF-DUE #0941515 and 0941191. 1242485.
  • Adapting a Methodology for Documenting Collective Growth to an Undergraduate
    Physical Chemistry Class", NSF-DUE #0816792, #0817467, #0816948
  • Collaborative Research: Mapping the Dimensions of the Undergraduate Chemistry Laboratory: Faculty Perspectives on Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Assessment", NSF DUE #0737784
  • Student Understanding of Biomolecules: An Investigation of Student's Visual Competence", NSF DUE #0736934
  • Collaborative Project: ChemED Digital Library: An NSDL Pathway for Chemical Sciences Education", NSF DUE #0632303 (evaluation)
  • Acquisition of GC/MS and FTIR Instrumentation to Assist with the Integration of Research-Based Learning throughout Boise State University's Chemistry Curriculum", NSF DUE (evaluation)