To introduce chemistry students to new research, Dr. Ellen Matson uses extra-credit assignments with fun foci: Web surfing, live events, and Twitter.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry,University of Rochester
PhD in Inorganic Chemistry, BA in Chemistry, BS in Science Education
Science moves quickly—and more so all the time, as technology helps speed research and analysis. That increasing speed is a boon for scientists, but Ellen Matson, PhD, also sees it as a potential disconnection point for science students.
“I think the way we teach chemistry is so decoupled from what being a chemist is actually all about,” says Matson, who teaches Inorganic Chemistry and other courses at the University of Rochester in New York. She wants her students to see the traditional textbook simply as a starting point in an exciting scientific journey—and to begin exploring the constant stream of research literature coming in from experts across the globe.
“A fundamental challenge for all educators in chemistry is thinking about how to represent appropriately this side of research that is so much about discovery and creativity, and less about memorizing the periodic table of elements or how to perform an equilibrium calculation,” says Matson.
Fortunately, she had an experiment in mind to bridge the divide. And it involved a unique take on something that most students love: extra credit.
Essential research, unaware students
New discoveries in the field of chemistry are being made every day, some of which shake scientific assumptions to their core. But college chemistry curricula that center on textbook readings, professor lectures, and occasional tests rarely expose students to the work that is being done in the world right now.
Extra credit based on cutting-edge chemistry
In order to whet students’ appetites for more dynamic learning—and to reach the goal of exposing them to chemistry in action—Matson offers her students the chance to earn extra credit by seeking out and reporting back on experimental scientific literature. She keeps it interesting by offering multiple ways to earn that credit, including lecture reporting, literature reviews, and social-media posting.
“If you think about the amount of research that’s created each year, the second a textbook is published, it’s out of date. You have to be able to take the guidance from these textbooks and integrate more contemporary research activities to help students understand what’s going on in the real world.”
-Ellen Matson, PhD
Course: CHM 211 Inorganic Chemistry
Course description: This course covers bonding in inorganic molecules, molecular symmetry, an introduction to solid-state chemistry, coordination chemistry and the properties of transition metal complexes.
Lesson: Offer extra credit for research exploration
To get students to engage with new research, Matson knew she needed to make it count—and that is why she turned research exploration into a way to earn extra credit.
“I added these extra-credit assignments to help students take control of their own destiny,” she says. “So if you want an A, or if you feel your homework assignment was graded unfairly, or if you feel the test was too hard, that’s a totally appropriate feeling to have, and here’s your way of regaining control of that situation by having this extra-credit opportunity.”
Matson’s extra-credit strategies focus on a simple philosophy that can apply to almost any subject: Get out in the world, chase down new information, and talk to people doing interesting things. Here are the three extra-credit options she provides to do just that.
1. Surf the web for cool science studies
To Matson, the holy grail of chemistry education is the work being done right now by experts looking for the latest scientific breakthroughs.
That is why one of the extra-credit opportunities Matson offers is focused on the review of relevant published, scholarly articles about authentic research that is being conducted by professors, research groups, and other experts all over the world. Students can simply locate (via the Internet), read, and report back on a study that interests them.
Best of all, thanks to the university’s vast online subscription services, almost everything students need can be accessed for free. “The beauty of this is that all these research journals are online and at their fingertips, so they can do this activity sitting in their dorm room in the middle of the night,” says Matson. “They don’t have to do it on my time or by going to the library. It’s just out there on the web.”
2. Crash a faculty or grad school seminar
Students in Matson’s courses are encouraged to attend inorganic chemistry seminars at the university that are meant primarily for graduate students and faculty. Afterward, students can earn extra credit in one of two ways: They can write a one- or two-page summary of the event; or they can ask a question of the seminar speaker during the Q-and-A session that usually follows each talk, and write up the answer that follows.
Matson sees an added benefit to the exercise in that it prepares her students for potential graduate-school work and the professional world beyond. “What we want to do here is teach students how to go on to ask scientific questions within their own community,” she says. “In my opinion, to be able to go in and have a professional conversation with somebody who lives and breathes this research is the ultimate example of being engaged in primary research.”
3. Create a “heavy metal” Twitter account
Matson says her favorite extra-credit assignment was inspired by the Course Hero Education Summit in 2018. There she saw geography instructor John Boyer, MS, from Virginia Tech, give a presentation in which he outlined the Twitter-based approach she now uses in her own classes.
For her Inorganic Chemistry course, Matson has each student select a “transition metal,” create a Twitter account for that metal, and then tweet about what it is, what it does in the natural world, and what the latest research says about it—ideally including a link to the study materials.
A fun twist: “Students are tweeting from the perspective of that metal,” adds Matson. “So when an article comes out about that metal, they can say, ‘Hey guys, look what I can do!’”
For her part, Matson has been fascinated by the depth and humor her students put into their tweets—and Twitter handles. Here are two examples that marry clever puns with cutting-edge findings:
Matson finds that these dynamic, unconventional methods not only help students improve their overall grades but also prompt them to take a more active part in their learning.
Another plus, Matson adds, is that she herself benefits. “I especially like the primary literature exercises, because they keep me up to date on my reading of articles in a fast and easy way.”
She also enjoys the reports on seminar discussions. “It’s really cool to see the way [students’] minds think about chemistry and their unique perspective on the content presented. As researchers we tend to ‘stay in our lane’—we are so focused on our specific research question that we often miss the bigger picture. Their questions can lead to new ideas.”