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Getting students to 'flip' over chemistry

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28 March 2016
Bevilacqua performs an experiment in his honors chemistry course. Credit: Courtesy of Philip Bevilacqua
Bevilacqua performs an experiment in his honors chemistry course. Credit: Courtesy of Philip Bevilacqua

The catchy thump of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” bass line greeted the students as they filed into the classroom for their honors chemistry course.

The topic of the day? Gas pressure, of course.

The course’s instructor — Philip Bevilacqua, professor of chemistry in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science —  has always looked for ways to make his classes more engaging. But it’s not just about matching his favorite music to the day’s subject.

Last fall, Bevilacqua used a blend of technologies to create an online library of digital resources — including animated PDFs, virtual chalkboard screencasts, and videos of demos and experiments on YouTube — for his honors chemistry course. Everything was posted to the class website, where students could review the material anytime they wanted.

Bevilacqua describes his approach as a "partially flipped" classroom.

In a flipped classroom, all lecture material is covered outside of class via readings and short videos, while hands-on experiments and assignments are done in class. In Bevilacqua's course, the time he and his students spent in the classroom was much like a traditional class, with lectures and demonstrations. But the extra online resources took some of the pressure off Bevilacqua to cover everything in class, freeing up time to do more experiments and answer questions while in class.

One of his students, Maria Hudock, called the approach “the best of both worlds.”

“It’s all about creating space in the classroom,” said Bevilacqua. “If students have these extra resources out of class, I can spend more time in class on demonstrations, experiments and answering questions. It lets you slow down and be more thorough.”

As a scientist, Bevilacqua says he naturally likes to fiddle and experiment with things. Last year, he had the idea that incorporating technologies into his course would be a way to try something new and explore different teaching strategies.

A self-described tech novice, Bevilacqua reached out to Melissa Hicks, director of the Office of Digital Learning in the Eberly College of Science. Hicks worked with Bevilacqua to identify and use the technologies that would work best for him and his goals.

Bevilacqua used an iPad and the app Doceri to create screencasts — videos that resemble writing magically appearing on a chalkboard along with voiceovers — to demonstrate how to work through mathematical equations and tricky chemical problems. The app also allowed him to use an arrow to point, circle and underline the math problem as he worked through it.

Bevilacqua also made videos of in-class experiments. His learning assistant Alex Chan would film the demo with his iPhone before Bevilacqua edited them in iMovie and uploaded them to YouTube. Finally, he created Movenote presentations to help students review each week’s material and preview the coming week. The presentations included slides that displayed key points they covered that week next to a video of Bevilacqua describing each point.

After he completed each screencast and video, Bevilacqua posted them to a website he built specifically for the class. In all, he created about 30 screencasts, 30 demo videos and a Movenote presentation for each week of the class.

“Hearing things once isn’t enough. I wanted these resources to be like always having a friendly classmate sit down and explain things to you,” Bevilacqua said. “I actually watched similar videos when I was learning how to create the screencasts myself. I know it benefited me to be able to rewind and watch things multiple times.”

For certain topics, Bevilacqua made a few videos that combined both screencasts and demonstrations. One such video explains how bromine gas diffuses through a graduated cylinder.

The video begins with a time-lapse clip of orange bromine gas filling the cylinder. The gas seems to move slowly — it takes an entire class period to reach the top of the container. The video then cuts to a screencast of Bevilacqua using simple sketches to explain why the gas moved so slowly. (The gas is slowed down by the air molecules.)

Finally, the video shows Bevilacqua removing the air from the cylinder, creating a vacuum. He puts bromine in the cylinder again and, this time, it fills the container nearly instantly.

With the video, a concept that may be hard to understand just by reading a textbook becomes much clearer. And, because it’s posted online, students can watch it several times until they deeply comprehend it.

“Sometimes people have a hard time with chemistry, and I think part of the reason is because molecules are small, concepts can be hard to visualize,” said Bevilacqua. “This is a way to break things down so students can really see and understand it.”

His approach seems to be working.

Hudock, a freshman majoring in biomedical engineering, says Bevilacqua’s was one of the most comprehensive and engaging courses she’s taken so far at Penn State.

“Dr. Bevilacqua was one of the most effective teachers I’ve ever had,” said Hudock. “Having so many resources available online while also having traditional lectures and assignments made me feel like Dr. Bevilacqua was giving his students every possible avenue we needed in order to learn.”

And while Hudock says she entered the class with a solid understanding of the subject, she left the course with a much greater appreciation for it.

“You could tell that Dr. Bevilacqua is enthusiastic and passionate about chemistry and helping students understand the subject,” said Hudock. “The course was a phenomenal experience. I didn’t think I would understand or love chemistry like I do now.”

As for Bevilacqua, he also found himself with a bigger appreciation of a subject: technology. He presented at the TLT Symposium on March 20 to give other faculty members tips about incorporating technology into their classrooms.

“I definitely see technology more favorably now,” said Bevilacqua. “I learned that it’s not always about using the absolute newest or best technology, but about using and customizing the technology that’s best for your students.”


[ Katie Bohn ]

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