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Reinventing the Chalkboard

For a long time, classrooms have remained essentially the same: teacher, chalkboard, textbook and a lecture to help students absorb the information.

Dr. Steven Wood is one of those helping to change that. A professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Wood is in charge of ChemCompanion, an interactive website that helps students understand chemistry. Easy to navigate and well-organized, the website is filled with video explanations and entertaining animations which explain important concepts to first year students.

The website looks like a classroom, with an interactive chalkboard — one that shows illustrations, notes and videos — and Dr. Wood explaining the concepts. The website combines classroom, website and textbook elements.

“The real power is that you have simultaneous delivery of text along with the visuals,” he said. “You can’t do that with a book.”

He describes ChemCompanion as a one-on-one experience. Students can view videos as many times as necessary; this is unlike the typical classroom lecture where if students miss a concept, it is difficult to catch up.

Two-thirds of students surveyed said they were likely or very likely to choose ChemCompanion over a textbook. In addition, two-thirds said the textbook was very intimidating, while 88 percent said ChemCompanion was not at all intimidating.

Recently the group has been developing new ways to visually present the solutions to numerical problems. In a pilot test of prototype materials, students who used the visual materials were more likely to complete more practice programs than those studying out of a standard textbook.

Development of ChemCompanion started in 2001 as a department project involving five faculty members, but Wood took sole responsibility in 2004. In 2009, the project was awarded a National Science Foundation grant, providing funding for further development.

At the conferences where Wood presented the software, many were surprised that undergraduate students produced the videos because they look very professional.

In a small room in the Benson building, all of the videos and animations are created, edited and published online by undergraduates under Dr. Wood’s supervision. Students have been involved in all aspects of the project, from editing the scripts to creation of the animations to the final finished products. Two of the current students preparing the visual materials are Eliza Meeks and Brendan Tobler. This project provides a great opportunity for these well-rounded students to combine their talents in art and science.

“For me, I’m an art history major, and I’m minoring in chemistry,” Meeks said. “So this job is a nice blend of those two.”

Though ChemCompanion looks complete, the team is adding more content to the website and altering it to help students remember concepts. When it is complete, the interactive website will be marketed, making it available for use at other universities and programs.

By Alysa Kleinman Posted on