Educational Research

Engaging students with evidence-based teaching methods

Our education research focuses on efforts to improve student learning by incorporating evidence-based practices in the classroom. Our broader objectives are to (i) increase the scientific literacy of students from all backgrounds and (ii) attract and retain a more diverse body of students to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I. Research Experiences in Authentic Laboratories (REAL) Science

We aim to develop, study, and share programs and curricula that attract and retain a diverse body of students to careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The work, funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, targets a variety of students at different points in their educational trajectories:

  1. University of Michigan undergraduates will have the opportunity to take an organic chemistry laboratory course (CHEM 211 and 211H) redesigned to reflect the realities of organic chemistry research. Students will tackle timely, real-world problems in organic chemistry. At the same time, UM Chemistry department graduate student instructors, faculty, and postdoctoral teaching fellows will develop skills as educators employing hands-on, learner-centered pedagogies that empower students to learn by engaging in authentic laboratory research.
  2. Washtenaw Community College students will have opportunities to learn what it means to do chemistry research and pursue advanced study in chemistry at UM. Summer internships in UM Chemistry department labs will provide authentic research experiences for WCC students and faculty alike. WCC students will be encouraged to pursue further study in Chemistry at the University of Michigan through more targeted academic advising support and a WCC-UM seminar series, in which UM faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students—particularly those who are WCC alumni—discuss their experiences.
  3. High school students will work with Chemistry researchers at UM to learn concepts and techniques associated with polymer chemistry. This unique opportunity allows students to gain experiences doing real organic chemistry research in a summer camp-style setting.

in lab action shot

group discussion

Research on each of these facets of the grant will focus on gaining a better understanding of what features of each program effectively promote and sustain student interest in further study and STEM careers. Research articles and publicly available, innovative curricula will be products of the research, so keep an eye on this space! See this HHMI Bulletin for a highlight.

High school students in our 2016 Michigan Math & Science Scholars Program created these awesome, informational stop-motion films about the polymers behind certain products (and their development over time).

II. The REBUILD Project: STEM Education Under Construction

The REBUILD (Researching Evidence Based Undergraduate Instructional and Learning Developments) project has received $2 million in funding from a National Science Foundation WIDER (Widening Implementation & Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms) grant, along with additional contributions from the University of Michigan’s Office of Research and the Colleges of Engineering and Literature, Sciences, and the Arts.

With these funds, the REBUILD committee is studying the literature of evidence-based education, working with education leaders to select reform approaches, and coordinating a multi-year effort to embed evidence-based teaching across a number of massive introductory STEM courses at the University of Michigan. One of our overall goals is to nucleate and support faculty interest in investigating student learning and teaching-related projects in and around the chemistry department.

The REBUILD Project: STEM Education Under Construction

III. Student-Generated Instructional Materials using Sapling Learning

Students entering the first-year organic chemistry courses at the University of Michigan come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Due to this difference in preparation, instructors devote significant amount of the course to basic skill development. Some of this work could be moved online which would enable faculty to introduce additional material, including more advanced topics, in lecture. To design the new online resource, we engaged students enrolled in special one-credit courses to construct, review and edit questions that would be incorporated into a feedback-driven online learning environment, Sapling Learning.

A number of topics were identified that were important to doing well in each course, including arrow pushing, resonance, and acid/base chemistry for CHEM 210 and acetal, acylation, and enolate/enol chemistry for CHEM 215. To date 600+ questions have been generated for CHEM 210 on 10 different skill-based topics. Each question contains specific feedback and explanations to guide the students in understanding the underlying concepts. In the Fall 2014 semester, those 600+ questions have been made available to students taking CHEM 210 and analysis of effectiveness of the resource, is currently underway. The CHEM 215 resource is being developed over the Fall 2014/Winter 2015 semesters and is projected to be launched in the Fall of 2015. This project has been supported by several internal mechanisms, including a Transforming Learning for the Third Century “Quick Wins” Grant, a LSA Instructional Technologies New Initiatives/New Infrastructure Grant, and a LSA Instructional Technologies Level II Grant.

Student-Generated Instructional Materials using Sapling Learning

Student-Generated Instructional Materials using Sapling Learning

IV. Improving Science Education and Understanding through Editing Wikipedia

In Fall 2008 I began developing a graduate-level class project that centers on the editing of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a highly visible and open platform for communicating science to general and technical audiences. Founded in 2001, Wikipedia is now the seventh most accessed site on the Internet, containing over 3 million articles in English and is translated into 260 different languages.

The format of Wikipedia is designed so that anyone can create or edit an entry with minimal instruction and entries can be readily interconnected through links. Overall, the goals of this project are to (i) enhance student learning, (ii) build collaborative skills, and (iii) improve the quality and quantity of scientific information available to the public. Briefly, the students work in small groups to edit a site on a topic that is related to the course material and not already adequately described in Wikipedia. Throughout the semester the students submit an outline and draft website for peer review and feedback. The culmination of the project involves posting the revised site online.

For examples of materials, please click here: syllabus, project description, timeline and peer review. Read more about it at the Wiki Ed Blog.

To date, over 150 students have contributed science content to Wikipedia through my courses. For representative sites, see: fire safe polymers, RAFT, physical organic chemistry, and strain. In 2010, the Wikimedia Foundation recognized our efforts and asked us to advise them on how to implement the Public Policy Initiative, a nationwide project that recognizes the educational value in having students edit Wikipedia. Our courses are now involved with the Global Education Program.

Sample of Wikipedia Page edited by McNeil Group

Wikipedia Logo