Through the Storm: Chemistry Education at Union University

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[originally published September 2014]

Marlyn Newhouse teaches Fundamentals of Chemistry and Physical Science at Union University in Jackson, TN. I admire Union for their academic rigor, the strength of their undergraduate research program, and their clarity of purpose.

In February 2008, Union was hit by a devastating tornado that injured 86 people and caused major damage to 19 campus buildings. Amazingly, there were no fatalities.

union tornado damage

Recently, in a discussion of flipped- and active-learning styles, Marlyn shared this story with me:

The most stark of the changes in the course has been the use of technology. I was very old-fashioned about the necessity of the teacher being physically in front of the student, proclaiming the essentials of the course. That is until the tornado of 2008. One of my students was one of the ones trapped under the rubble. When he was recuperating at home, a web cam was installed in the lecture room. This allowed the student to view the MWF noon lectures in their home in Memphis. They could follow my movements from the lecture desk to the Periodic Table on the side wall as I moved around the room. (Exerpt: Newhouse, Marlyn “Adapting Elementary Teaching Methods to College Students”, Journal of the Union Faculty Forum, Fall 2010, vol. 30 pp 39-41.)

These days, Marlyn is flipping her class using the World of Chemistry series, available from Annenburg Media. Coming from an elementary school teaching background, she has always used videos in classes. Some students are visual learners. The surprise is that some students are not. A worksheet almost always accompanies the assignment to watch a video. At the next class day the questions on the worksheet are discussed and emphasis made on specific points. This frees up class time to do demos, show how to do homework problems on Sapling or explain concepts in further detail.

Strategies for Intro and Gen Chem

In addition to the flipped Fundamentals course (CHE105), Dr. Randy Johnston at Union has developed a new version. It is a hybrid course using the materials from the flipped course in a purely online component but also containing "face to face" lab component. It was originally designed to accommodate the adult students in the Bachelor of Science in Organizational Leadership (BSOL) program. The lecture portion is online. Most of the videos used are available from Union's Emma Summer Library media service , "Videos on demand". The lab portion is accomplished in two Saturdays with 4 or more experiments each.

Since the course begins in October it has the added benefit to serve as a “parachute course” for a few traditional students who struggle with General Chemistry. Instead of dropping 4 credit hours or staying in a course in which they are struggling, students can add the Fundamentals course in the second half of the semester and get the support they need to be successful. This option is limited because the original purpose was for adult students.

Finally, staying on the theme of helping students be successful, Union has developed a one-hour math review related to General Chemistry ( CHE 111). In this model, students with low math ACT scores are advised to enroll in the 8 week (1 credit hour) course, which starts in August. The course is designed to build problem solving skills and strengthen algebra skills. The course is being taught by one of the instructors who regularly teaches General Chemistry. A second 1 credit hour course can be taken the second half of the semester for students to receive more practice at working chemistry problems. In order to make these new courses more effective, the General Chemistry course is being taught using atom first approach. This allows a student enrolled in the first 8 week course to complete it before they are required to do too many calculations in the General Chemistry course. Both of these courses are being offered on a trial basis for the first time this semester.

About the Author
Kevin Revell received his bachelor's degree from the University of New Orleans in 1995, then his Master's Degree in Organic Chemistry from Iowa State in 2000. After several very formative years working in the pharmaceutical industry, he decided to go into education, and from 2002-2006 he taught chemistry at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. Following completion of his Ph.D. from the University of South Florida in 2006, Kevin joined the faculty at Murray State University in Murray, KY. Kevin's research interests include organic synthesis and functional organic materials. He loves to teach, and is increasingly interested in science education in flipped and online class settings. He and his wife Jennifer have 3 kids, and they stay busy between family, church, school, and playing basketball in the driveway.