June 06, 2019

Better Learning Through Chemistry

How do you teach an introductory course to a field that is both vast in content and fundamental to understanding inorganic chemistry? Associate Professor of Chemistry Anne Bentley is helping lead an innovative study funded by the National Science Foundation that unites a group of 20 professors and researchers from across the country to develop a groundbreaking inorganic chemistry course.

by Hanna Merzbach BA ’20

Chemistry Professor Anne Bentley, in the lab with undergrads. Chemistry Professor Anne Bentley, in the lab with undergrads.Inorganic chemistry is typically defined as the study of any compound that does not contain the element carbon, which includes the majority of the elements on the periodic table. Since this field is so vast, effective ways of teaching an introductory course have not yet been identified. Anne Bentley, associate professor of chemistry, is helping change this.

Bentley has been named a virtual inorganic pedagogical electronic resource (VIPEr) fellow in an innovative study to develop, test, and refine a flexible, foundation-level inorganic chemistry course. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this groundbreaking study unites a group of 20 fellows from across the country to identify and share effective teaching methods.

Bentley is the only fellow who is both a researcher and participant in the study. Although she started participating in the study this year, she has been involved in developing the VIPEr website since 2008 and part of the leadership team that manages the website since 2014. The website started as a venue for professors to share teaching advice.

“When I first got to Lewis & Clark, I didn’t have a lot of models on what to include in an introductory inorganic chemistry course—there’s this flexibility in the content,” Bentley said. “All of us [professors] have our own specialities, but we’re expected to teach such a big part of the periodic table… even people who have PhDs don’t know the whole subject. So the VIPEr website has been a good resource for sharing ideas.”

This spring, Bentley administered surveys and taped presentations in her 15-student Inorganic Chemistry Laboratory class. By studying these videos and those from other fellows, researchers aim to understand how different teaching methods affect student learning and interest.

The project encourages professors to adopt evidence-based classroom practices: teaching methods that have been proven to work for teachers and students alike. It also focuses on active learning, where students learn from doing instead of from lecturing.

“I try to get people to stand up and move around,” Bentley said. “Lecturing can be okay if you do it for 5 or 10 minutes and then move on to something else. When I’m just droning on, it’s not good for anybody.”

Syrah Starnes BA ’20, a chemistry and mathematics double major from Corvallis, Oregon, took Bentley’s course this past spring.

“The way Professor Bentley is teaching the course is very effective for almost all of the students,” Starnes said. “Unlike other chemistry courses where there is one assignment every week or more, we have a smaller problem due every class period that enables us to practice the skills we were taught the class before.”

By adopting proven effective teaching methods and greater resources, Bentley hopes students will benefit long term from this study and become connected to a nationwide network of inorganic chemistry professors.

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