A New Way to Teach Chemistry: Video Selfies

Can making movies make you a better chemist? UAB chemistry professor Joe March and graduate student Mitzy Erdmann have proven that it does. Their research-tested approach is now implemented across UAB's introductory General Chemistry curriculum.

Professor Joe March and graduate student Mitzy Erdmann.Professor Joe March and graduate student Mitzy Erdmann.Hollywood has nothing on the UAB Department of Chemistry. While Tinseltown studios generate some 600 movies per year, students in the university's General Chemistry course produce nearly that many each semester.

"Avatar" this is not. Each video clocks in at five minutes or less and follows a strict formula:
SCENE 1, DAY OPEN in a UAB chemistry lab. THREE or FOUR students take turns demonstrating a fundamental lab technique. Each speaks directly to the camera while they explain how to use a balance, how to pipette, or how to do an accurate titration.
There is no scene 2.

The teaching assistants who grade dozens of these videos each year may relish the occasional creative approaches, such as the group who adopted a "Star Wars" theme (see below), or the ones who broke for commercials. But entertainment isn't the idea. Call it sci (non)fi.



Formula Flicks

These videos may never go viral, but they could inspire a new generation of students to pursue virology — or other crucial science careers. The videos have proven themselves to be a remarkably effective — and cheap — teaching tool. And considering that Gen Chem is a foundational course for a host of careers, from medicine to engineering, anything that can improve student learning — and make students more comfortable with crucial lab techniques — is a big deal.

The Coen Brothers of this movie empire are associate professor Joe March, Ph.D., and graduate student Mitzy Erdmann. They have spent the past four years proving that making movies makes for better chemists. "The impact of seeing yourself do something is greater than seeing someone else do it," March says. In a randomized, controlled trial, he and Erdmann showed that movie-making students "were twice as likely to perform a technique accurately after having shot a video" compared to a control group that received traditional, verbal instruction alone, March says.

"We are seeing that students are better prepared to go into research labs," March says. That's good news for a major research university like UAB. But it's also good news for the United States, which is desperate to boost enrollment in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields in order to maintain its global competitiveness in an increasingly science-centered world.

Ninety-five percent of Gen Chem students are STEM or pre-health majors, Erdmann says. But few have prior lab experience. As the researchers explain in a paper now under review at the Journal of Chemical Education, "the most technically astute member of the group often becomes responsible for the majority of the data collection" in the average chemistry course, while his or her partners become little more than spectators.

Movie Studio in a Pocket

March has been pondering this problem for some time. In fact, he is something of a pioneer in chemistry tech. At the University of Wisconsin, March was part of a project called ChemPages, which included expert video demonstrations of basic chemistry lab techniques. ChemPages has been adopted at many universities. "The idea was to show students the technique before they arrived in the lab so they had an idea of what to do," he says. "But I realized it would be a lot more powerful if you could watch yourself in the video."

March pursued the idea when he came to UAB. In 2010, he and Erdmann answered their first basic research question: Was it reasonable to expect hundreds of freshmen to provide their own cameras? (Buying enough cameras for the 1,500-plus students who take Gen Chem at UAB each year was clearly out of the question.)

A survey of UAB students showed that the timing was right. "Ten years ago they would have had to buy all the equipment to do something like this," March says. "Today, every study group has at least one person with a phone capable of shooting video."



Experimental Filmmaking

With the access question answered, March and Erdmann piloted an experiment in the Summer 2011 semester. Students got a detailed rubric — in effect a shooting script that told them exactly what they needed to do for the cameras. And teaching assistants provided quick feedback, giving groups a chance to reshoot to improve their grades.

Some similar projects have been tried in upper-level courses around the country, but never "on a large scale in a freshman chemistry course," Erdmann says. The required techniques are carefully chosen, she adds: "We've picked ones they're going to use again and again."

In March and Erdmann's research study, an independent proctor evaluated the entire cohort of students as they performed the techniques in the lab. "They didn't know which students had made the videos and which had not," March says. The students who had made videos — and watched themselves in action — were clearly superior.

Encouraged by the project's success, March and Erdmann rolled it out to ever larger groups in subsequent terms. "Once we decided it was working, we expanded it to all students," March says.

Creative Chemistry

Junior chemistry major Aaron Alford was part of one of those early experimental cohorts; today he's a teaching assistant in the Gen Chem lab. "Reading through the rubric and then watching yourself do the techniques" is very effective, Alford says. "Now every time I use a balance it's like second nature — it's cemented in."

The teaching assistants walk through the lab during filming days, coaching students through the techniques and correcting any errors in form. Students are told about the video requirement at the beginning of the semester. "So far, I've only ever had one group that didn't have a smartphone or video camera of some kind between them," Erdmann says. "And we dealt with that quickly by just swapping members between groups."

Presentation only accounts for two out of the 25 maximum points for the videos, but many groups go above and beyond to add some artistry to their films. "A good three-quarters of my students do pretty substantial editing," Erdmann says.

During his time in the class, "we decided to get the footage and then dub over it with a scripted voiceover," Alford says. Then he got a roommate who was majoring in film to edit the project with professional-level Final Cut software. He did the job himself for his second and third videos, using Apple's consumer-grade iMovie application.

But students don't need to have their own video editing software. The Digital Media Commons lab in the College of Arts and Sciences is open to all students. The lab is equipped with a host of workstations and the latest video editing tools. "When we opened the lab, some of the first people who came in were chemistry students," says Rosie O'Beirne, director of Digital Media and Learning at UAB. "We're seeing a lot of foot traffic from science students."



Social Success

Enrollment in Gen Chem is soaring. "UAB is heavily recruiting science majors" to help fuel the nation's drive for STEM students, March points out. "Our enrollment has doubled in the past few years," and currently stands at more than 1,500 — 95 percent of whom are STEM or pre-health majors. That makes for a lot of videos for TAs like Alford and Erdmann to watch. "When they get creative it's always fun," Alford says. "One group took a Star Wars template and put important text in that, then cut to the regular video of them doing the technique. Some use music. One group paused for commercials."

Student engagement is a key ingredient in good teaching. And it gives visual and auditory learners a chance to shine, Erdmann says. Now, "we're trying to see if we can expand it — such as having students do actual lab reports on video," she says.

The lessons could be easily adapted beyond the lab, March adds. "It's an interesting alternate assessment technique for the sciences, but I think it has implications in the humanities as well," he says. "Whenever students can see themselves in a video, it has the opportunity for more impact. And they're more likely to share the lesson with family and friends through social media. We've shown that modern technology has a good educational foundation. This opens up lots of different possibilities."

By Matt Windsor