Carnegie Mellon's ChemCollective receives science prize for online resources in education

April 29, 2010

PITTSBURGH--The ChemCollective website, developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to provide chemistry instructors with access to virtual lab and scenario-based learning activities, has received the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE). The award, sponsored by Science magazine, recognizes outstanding freely available online materials that enrich science education.

The ChemCollective (www.chemcollective.org), developed by Associate Professor of Chemistry David Yaron and colleagues, gives introductory level chemistry students the opportunity to participate in activities that go beyond traditional textbook problems, allowing them to engage with chemistry in a way that more closely resembles the activities of practicing chemists. According to Yaron, traditional textbook problems were developed by educators when paper and pencil problem solving was the only viable option available for students to practice chemistry, as most students had limited access, if any, to a physical laboratory. The growing availability of computers now gives chemistry educators the opportunity to fundamentally redesign the activities used in high school and college chemistry courses.

"Students can learn how to do the standard written exercises that appear in textbooks without really developing an understanding of chemistry," Yaron said. "Our goal is to give students worldwide the opportunity to approach chemistry more like actual scientists, by designing and carrying out their own virtual experiments and by applying chemistry concepts in real world contexts."

The site has two main types of activities: virtual labs and scenario-based learning activities. The virtual labs use a web-based laboratory simulation in which students can select from hundreds of chemical reagents and manipulate them much like they would in an actual laboratory. The scenario-based activities give students the opportunity to apply chemical concepts to interesting scenarios such as a murder mystery, a case of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh or a project designing fuel for a mission to Mars.

Because all the materials are free for non-profit use, the site makes chemistry resources available to students who wouldn't otherwise have access, including those in smaller or low-income schools, or those who are home-schooled.

Yaron and his team, made up of software engineers, undergraduate programmers and educational consultants, began developing the resources used in the ChemCollective in 2000, and the site was launched in its current format in 2004. Last year, the more than 100,000 experiments were performed on the website and the software was downloaded more than 25,000 times for use on local computers. Many instructors have submitted their own materials to the site to be shared among users. Of the 117 labs currently available on the site, 56 have been contributed by 11 different groups from the user community.

Science magazine announces one recipient of the SPORE award each month throughout the year, publishing an essay on each program. The essay on the ChemCollective appears in the April 30 issue. Co-authors of the essay include Carnegie Mellon's David Yaron, Michael Karabinos and alumnus Donovan Lange, along with James G. Greeno and Gaea Leinhardt from the University of Pittsburgh.
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The ChemCollective is funded by the National Science Foundation's National SMET Digital Library and Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement programs, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

About Carnegie Mellon: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the fine arts. More than 11,000 students in the university's seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. A global university, Carnegie Mellon's main campus in the United States is in Pittsburgh, Pa. It has campuses in California's Silicon Valley and Qatar, and programs in Asia, Australia, Europe and Mexico. The university is in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign, titled "Inspire Innovation: The Campaign for Carnegie Mellon University," which aims to build its endowment, support faculty, students and innovative research, and enhance the physical campus with equipment and facility improvements.

Carnegie Mellon University

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