Friday, October 7, 2016

Student-Centered Learning in Chemistry Class at Woodstock Academy

Students working on their personalized periodic tables.

What does "student-centered" look like in chemistry class? In my class, students are facing each other and talking about chemistry. Not everyone faces the "front" of the classroom because the action happens all over the room, not just at the front board. Kids use the whole room to form different study groups or lab teams. I move around and sit amongst the small groups, or step aside altogether sometimes to get out of the way of the conversations. I'm continuing down the path of student-centered learning, but I am always looking for better ways to actively engage my students in the learning process.
Students working on an a lab to investigate ionic compounds.

I'm not a big fan of educational jargon or "boxes", so I hesitate to label myself. But you can use a few descriptors for my methods like blended learning, flipped classroom, or constructivist.  The beginning of the Flipped Classroom Experiment in the fall of 2012 opened my eyes to the possibilities of a student-centered classroom. By taking out the lecture, I freed myself (and my students) for more active learning opportunities during our class time. Students access the content on their own outside of class, at their own pace and using their preferred learning style. Gone are the days of waiting for a student to copy down my notes from the board.  I always hated that awkward pause as the slow student would try so hard to keep up with the notes. Especially because I knew that this student wasn't actually learning anything at that moment by copying my words.  However, if you use the definition of a flipped classroom, I'm not sure my class would fit. My teaching style goes beyond the classic idea of doing the homework in class and the lecture at home.
White board work is great for planning a lab or doing practice problems.

Technology is a vital part of my student-centered model. At Woodstock Academy the students all have an iPad to use for school. Easy access to class content is critical for my work in the student-centered classroom. I can post class activities on our iTunesU class that each student can download directly onto their device. With everything we do posted on the iTunesU course, the students can make good use of class time by transitioning from one activity to another at their own pace. Sometimes we work as a whole group, other times the students work with a partner or a small group. With all of my class content on the iTunesU course, my students have access to a everything from class whenever they need it. I'm really happy with the iPad in class. It's a fantastic tool to use for just about everything I've wanted: easy access to class activities, science lab simulations, videos, ALEKS work, and chemistry apps like the molar mass calculator.
These students are working on a POGIL activity in small groups.

The lab program is an obvious part of the student-centered model for chemistry class. Labs are the perfect opportunity for kids to get into the learning. I have tried to move my labs away from the "confirmation lab" model in which my students are trying to get the right answer. For example, a classic chemistry lab determining the value of the ideal gas constant (R). What teenager cares about that number, you can look it up on line in every possible combination of units. Instead, I like to do labs that have a real-world application and a unique answer. Instead of deriving the value of R experimentally, I ask my students to use the gas laws to design an airbag. Even something as simple as density can be used to answer an interesting question. I like to have my students create a calibration curve for the density of known sugar solutions so they can determine the sugar content in a drink.
Growing alum crystals for the US Crystal Growing Competition.

White-boarding is also a critical part of my classroom model. I believe in the benefit of white board activities for practice and review. I love the formative assessment opportunities that I get from the white board. Students can work at their own pace and I have time to conference with individuals who have questions. The iPad is a great tool for my white boarding activities because I can post a list of problems for the class for self-paced problem solving. Once again, I have figured out how to remove myself from the center of the activity, giving ownership to my students and freeing my time to work one-on-one with my students.
My colleague and partner in Friday Fun, Caroline, also uses a student-centered approach.

This year I have added in an extra element of fun into my classes. In addition to all of my favorite labs and demos that I do with my students, I have decided to add in Friday Fun to my regular weekly program. Friday Fun is a nice way for me to pull out demos or activities that may not "fit" in the content of the course, but provide an interesting and entertaining look at science principles. My hope is that I will also turn this over to my students at some point during the year. I have asked for suggestions for Friday Fun from all of my classes. Slowly they are starting to come up with some ideas and suggestions. I hope we aren't far away from students showing the class something cool they found on the internet and setting it up in the lab.
Student-centered learning is not always the first choice for these high achieving students.

An interesting wrinkle in the student-centered classroom is the response from the students. My honors students are not only used to a traditional classroom but also happily succeeding in the teacher-centered model. They don't always take to the change with enthusiasm. Even though these high achieving students are good at performing in a traditional classroom, I feel that they deserve the challenge and responsibility that comes with a  student-centered approach.

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