Robust learning requires both conceptual understanding and procedural fluency. One reason chemistry is a difficult subject is that students must understand macroscopic phenomena using molecular level (that is, non-visible, and concept laden) explanations. A wide range of models and visualizations exist to represent molecular level structures, reaction details, and reactivity of materials. Students must learn to use these representations both fluidly and meaningfully in order to achieve a rigorous understanding of molecular concepts (rather than merely memorizing them). However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that learning how to construct and use these representations is far more difficult than many instructors recognize. This project builds upon work that has resulted in the creation of OrganicPad and SocraticGraphs. It is further integrating both programs into the BeSocratic system and expanding the analysis system. By bringing together a group of chemists and computer scientists, a system is being developed and implemented that allows investigations into how to improve the representational competence of chemistry students "in the wild." Previous research by these Principal Investigators has produced a large database of information on how students construct and use representations, and this project further develops and deploys a flexible, web-based system, BeSocratic, that can recognize and respond to free-form student input. This input is in the form of graphical representations that include chemical structures, reactions, and graphs. Specifically, tutorials and formative assessment activities are being developed based on the previous research in combination with the available evidence of how people learn. Because a disciplinary team was already in place, and because working versions existed of OrganicPad and SocraticGraphs, chemistry was chosen as the "test-bed" for the development, assessment and deployment of the new materials. The systems being developed, and the insights being gained through the project's research activities, are expected to be directly applicable to other STEM disciplines, including physics, biology, mathematics, and engineering.

Intellectual Merit: The research is investigating what factors improve student skill in constructing and using representations, such as: Does actually drawing a structure (as opposed to recognizing or construction using a template) improve student understanding? Can the use of gesture, which can be captured by the BeSocratic touchscreen or track pad interfaces, improve the fluidity by which students use representations? Can the use of contextual, Socratic questioning and feedback improve student conceptual understanding of the meaning of the representations? By answering questions such as these, an understanding is being gained of how students develop representational competence, and what instructional techniques can enhance student learning.

Broader Impacts: The use of the BeSocratic system allows the investigation of activities from the introductory (and high school) chemistry course to graduate level instruction. Two far-reaching impacts will result from this project. The first is finding what "works" to produce more robust development of representational competence. From drawing structures to understanding mechanistic organic chemistry, the results from the BeSocratic system and mixed method research designs will be used to inform the chemistry community. The second important impact is to provide evidence for what works with on-line systems. For a new learning modality to be adopted it must be relatively easy to use, with no steep learning curve. If online teaching and learning systems are designed to provide research-validated, effective activities that incorporate both procedural fluency and conceptual understanding, the result will be more robust learning by students. The BeSocratic system will be available on the web, and research findings will be presented at professional meetings. Workshops for faculty interested in learning about the research findings or in using the BeSocratic system will be offered at regional and national meetings.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Nicole Bennett
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University of North Carolina at Wilmington
United States
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