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Pepperdine prof tackles chemistry misconceptions

February 11, 2002

“I freely admit that I’m a nerd. I have a driving curiosity to understand the world. I want to know why something works or doesn’t work,” says Douglas Mulford ’94, who has developed a tool that is helping to reform the way chemistry is taught.

Curiosity…creativity…questioning…the desire to learn. They are integral to being a scientist, yet too many students come to college without them, according to Mulford, assistant professor of chemistry at Pepperdine University.

“I am struck with how little students expect to think and how much they are looking for the ‘right’ answer that will get them their A,” he says, placing much of the blame on an educational system that teaches to standardized tests.

“How can we help students see that science is more than right answers?” he asks. “How can we help them understand that research is largely a creative endeavor? How can we help them think as scientists?”

Mulford came to Lewis & Clark with competing passions in education, theatre, and science. Since graduation, he’s managed to carve a career that combines all three.

At Lewis & Clark, he majored in chemistry and conducted research with chemistry professors James Duncan and Louis Kuo. He tutored students and worked as a teaching assistant in Kuo’s chemistry laboratory. And he participated in most theatre productions, completing a minor in theatre. Along the way, in true Lewis & Clark fashion, he took voice lessons, competed on the crew team, and helped organize New Student Orientation.

After earning both the American Institute of Chemists Outstanding Senior Chemistry Student Award and the Outstanding Student in Technical Theatre Award at Lewis & Clark, he headed to Purdue University to enroll in one of only three graduate programs in chemistry that offer opportunities to do research specific to the teaching of chemistry.

“At Purdue, I was surrounded by students who hailed from schools such as MIT, Cal Tech, Harvard, and Yale. I can say with confidence that I left Lewis & Clark prepared as well as, if not better than, my fellow graduate students,” he says, crediting Professor Curtis Keedy, Professor William Randall, Duncan, and Kuo.

Within five years, Mulford earned both a master’s degree in chemical education and a doctorate in inorganic chemistry. Pepperdine snapped him up to develop and teach an advanced course in inorganic chemistry and to teach general chemistry and a first-year course titled 2,500 Years of Great Science Writing.

“Most general chemistry students aren’t chemistry majors,” he says. “They view chemistry as difficult. But I don’t believe the concepts contained in chemistry are beyond any of my students. Every one of them is mentally capable of understanding the material.

“So why don’t they?” he asks. “Is it the material, or is it the way we teach the material?”

For his master’s thesis at Purdue, Mulford explored the constructionist theory of learning, which states that the most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.

“Students construct their own view of the world and why it works—right or wrong,” he explains. “If what I say doesn’t fit into that view, they will ignore me. They won’t change their view until they figure out for themselves that it is incorrect. But if I know what they believe, I can help them understand why their view doesn’t work.”

Mulford found a wealth of research identifying misconceptions of chemical concepts. “I wanted to take that research and apply it to the university setting.”

So he developed “The Chemical Concepts Inventory,” a set of 22 questions based on commonly observed misconceptions, and administered the inventory to 1,400 students in a general chemistry course for science and engineering majors (all of whom had taken high school chemistry).

“The results show that many of our general chemistry students aren’t fluent with a significant portion of the concepts in general chemistry,” he discovered.

For example, 47 percent erroneously believe rust from a completely rusted iron nail weighs less than the nail it came from; 75 percent cannot distinguish between the properties of a single atom of sulfur and a sample of solid sulfur; and 65 percent mistakenly believe that breaking chemical bonds gives off energy.

“If I know from the beginning what students are thinking when they enter the university, I can teach more effectively,” he says. Mulford uses the inventory to be a better teacher. But he also wants it to initiate reform in chemical education by demonstrating that students are missing key concepts.

At professional meetings, he challenges doubters to administer the inventory themselves.

“Some faculty are surprised to learn that their students don’t know what they thought they knew.

“Students can calculate left and right, but they don’t understand the concepts behind the calculations,” he emphasizes.

Last year, the Journal of Chemical Education published the inventory on its Web site. Iowa and Ohio school districts are using the inventory, and so are colleges and universities in Guam and South Korea.

Mulford plans to expand the inventory to include second-semester general chemistry and, at the same time, to continue his research in inorganic chemistry. He’s interested in the synthesis and reactivity of novel gallium and indium metal species—compounds that are potential starting materials for the syntheses of semiconductors and light-emitting diodes.

In addition, Mulford’s an editor for the American Journal of Undergraduate Research, a peer reviewer for the Journal of Chemical Education, and a member of Project kaleidoscope for the 21st Century. He sings in the university choir, performs in swing and ballroom dancing competitions, and uses his skill as a balloonologist to twist and turn balloons into demonstrations of chemical concepts.

And he still finds time to represent his alma mater at college fairs: “I tell parents of prospective students that I got where I am today because of the excellent education I received at Lewis & Clark College. It set me up to succeed.”

—by Jean Kempe-Ware

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