NSF-funded project to learn how students interpret chemistry concepts

Stacey Lowery Bretz

Stacey Lowery Bretz

written by Heather Johnston, office for the advancement of research & scholarship

In response to projections that the U.S. will need an additional one million workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by 2022, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report in 2012 that called for improving STEM education during the first two years of college.

Having spent her career researching the teaching, learning and assessment of chemistry, Stacey Lowery Bretz, Miami University’s Volwiler Distinguished Research Professor of Chemistry, knows just how important those first two years are.

“Fewer than 40 percent of the students who start out majoring in a STEM field stick with it,” Bretz said.

Even students who did well in high school science classes can struggle in – and fail or drop out of – introductory-level classes in college.  While in the past this attrition was accepted as a necessary “weeding out” of weaker students, the current emphasis on STEM education means faculty must reconsider their role in student learning.  

According to Bretz,  “There’s growing recognition among science faculty that we need to do a better job teaching basic concepts.”

In Bretz’s field of chemistry, basic concepts center on understanding the structure and properties of matter.   

“To teach students about molecules, compounds, atoms and ions, we use models or representations of these things,” Bretz said.  “But the way students interpret our representations often leads them to develop misconceptions about the concepts we’re trying to teach.”

So, backed by a $1.28 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) – her second $1 million-plus Chemistry Education Research grant since coming to Miami in 2005 – Bretz is embarking on a 5-year project to assess how students interpret representations of core chemistry concepts.  

One goal of the project is to develop assessment tools that other chemistry instructors and chemistry education researchers can use to gather data on their own students’ learning. Then, Bretz and her team, including a post-doctoral fellow and four graduate students, will hold workshops to teach their colleagues how to use the tools and how to properly analyze the data they yield.

“Evidence-based instructional practices are very important,” Bretz says.  “But, we have to create measurement tools to establish baseline data on learning first.”  From there researchers will be able to tell whether future innovations in pedagogy and curriculum are effective at moving the needle on student retention.  And that, she added, is key to answering PCAST’s call to improve STEM education.