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Chemical Education International, Vol. 3, No. 1, AN-8, Received November 1, 2002

Encouraging Independent Chemistry Learning through Multimedia Design Experiences

Olga Agapova1, Loretta Jones2, Alex Ushakov3, Ann Ratcliffe4, Mary Ann Varanka Martin5

1ICESS, Geography Department; University of California at Santa Barbara; Santa Barbara, CA 93106; (805) 893-8883; (805) 886-2571; Email: [email protected]

2Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; University of Northern Colorado; Greeley, CO 80639; (970) 351-1443; Email: [email protected]

3Computer Science Department; University of California at Santa Barbara; Santa Barbara, CA 93106; (805) 893-8532; Email: [email protected]

4Center for Precollegiate Studies and Outreach; University of Northern Colorado; Greeley, CO 80639; (970) 351-1525; Email: [email protected]

5Estes Park High School; P. O. Box 1140; Estes Park, CO 80517; (970) 586-5321, ext. 3316; (970) 586-6377; Email: [email protected] 

Abstract: A new approach to teaching secondary school chemistry through design activities in a technology-based and inquiry-oriented learning environment was developed and tested with secondary school students in the United States. The materials and their effects on the interactions between teachers and students are described, along with the adjustments required as teachers become facilitators and students become independent learners.

1. Introduction

Many secondary school chemistry teachers would like to incorporate inquiry-based active learning methods and technology into their classrooms, but the time and effort required to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning can be daunting. The authors of this article were involved in a project to introduce multimedia learning into secondary school chemistry classrooms and anticipated that the change would be difficult for teachers and students. However, an interesting finding of the project was that teachers who used multimedia learning in a truly central fashion found that the technology could facilitate inquiry-based learning in a way that benefited both students in their learning of content and skills and teachers in their increased repertoire of teaching practices. The fact that this finding has been observed in other settings suggests that this experience can be duplicated in other multimedia classrooms (1).  

One classroom in which the change to a multimedia chemistry course has been made is that of Dr. Mary Ann Varanka Martin. A recent visitor to her classroom found that students, instead of sitting in rows, gathered in groups around computers. One group was using databases to plot trends in oxidation numbers and ionization energies. Another debated the best way to set up mathematical formulas in a spreadsheet and to design problems for other students to complete. A third group was discussing how to construct an anion by adding electrons to an atom. A fourth group was working with Dr. Varanka Martin to determine the best path to solve a design challenge. 

In her classroom Dr. Varanka Martin is using ChemDiscovery, a technology-based chemistry course that was designed to help teachers cope with the dilemma of meeting the needs of students of varying abilities and interests and to prepare their students for the demands of the information age (2,3).

2. Learning Chemistry through Design Activities

The ChemDiscovery curriculum (originally known as ChemQuest) was developed at the University of Northern Colorado by a group of chemistry professors, graduate students, education and technology specialists, and secondary school teachers and students from four states. The United States National Science Foundation funded the development as an effort to incorporate some of the software and ideas from innovative programs developed in Russia and in the United States into a new technology-based secondary school chemistry course. The course is centered on interactive web pages that link to activities, databases, and design studios, and that are coordinated with a set of hands-on small-scale laboratory activities.

One of the goals of the ChemDiscovery curriculum is to provide a structured learning environment in which students work together in pairs or in cooperative learning groups to complete inquiry activities. According to the United States National Science Education Standards, inquiry is more than process skills:

When engaging in inquiry, students describe objects and events, ask questions, construct explanations, test those explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicate their ideas to others. They identify their assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations. In this way, students actively develop their understanding of science by combining scientific knowledge with reasoning and thinking skills. (4)

In order for students to be engaged in inquiry, they must spend some time working independently, either individually or with other students in order to propose their own ideas and test them. These activities are conducted with the guidance and encouragement of the teacher, rather than under the direction of the teacher. In general, students in traditional secondary school chemistry classrooms do not spend much time working independently, but rather listen to lectures and complete worksheets or other assigned activities. In ChemDiscovery, students also listen to lectures and complete worksheets, but these activities are usually completed to support the projects students are investigating and lectures are often presented at the request of the students. That is, students seek the knowledge required to complete their activities rather than performing activities to illustrate concepts that have been presented to them. By working in pairs or groups, they support each other's learning and reinforce their own by offering explanations and critiquing the explanations of others.

Chemistry can be a difficult subject to teach because not only do students often have negative preconceptions about chemistry, but it is a molecular science in which many of the concepts and processes are not visible to the eye (5). To address these problems, ChemDiscovery employs a set of synergistic learning strategies, including the following:

  • Approaching content within relevant contexts
  • Visualizing and modeling the molecular level of matter
  • Engaging in inquiry through authentic science and design activities
  • Discovering knowledge in a step-by-step manner
  • Learning independently and in cooperative learning groups
  • Self-constructing meaningful learning (from computer feedback to problem-solving and problem-constructing strategies)
  • Accepting responsibility for the environment
  • Designing individual learning pathways through the course

The ChemDiscovery curriculum uses technology to implement these strategies through the interactive design of a virtual world. The curriculum consists of eight Quests, or projects, that integrate chemistry with other science disciplines. To complete these Quests students must design and construct atoms, molecules, crystals, chemical reactions, and larger systems, such as a water treatment plant, in a computer environment (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. In this design studio students select orbitals from a kit and use them to design and construct atoms and molecules. The computer provides appropriate feedback to students on their designs. (Larger View)

The design process requires students to understand the content deeply, to formulate hypotheses, and to use chemical laws, theories, and rules. Instead of consulting a textbook, students find the information they need through links in the web pages. The course is matched to the provisions and requirements of the National Science Education Standards for teaching, content, and assessment.  

The Quests can be completed in almost any order and some teachers have used them as supplements to a more traditional, textbook-based course. However, teachers who completed them in the order given in Table 1 felt that by working from the smallest to larger particles students learn how the properties of a bulk sample of matter arise from the properties of the atoms and molecules that make up the sample.

Table 1: The Eight Quests of ChemDiscovery





To design atomic nuclei and atoms

To design a set of atomic nuclei

To design electronic structures

Origin of the universe

The Sun

Radioactive isotopes in everyday life


To design electronic structures of atoms


History of science


To design models of monatomic ions

Ions in the plasma in outer space

Ions in food, glass, seawater


To design elemental substances

Gaseous elements

Liquid substances

Solid substances: Elemental crystals

Stars and planets (core, crust, and atmosphere)

Air pollution, solar cells, automobiles


To design chemical reactions between

Atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere of Earth



To design models of binary compounds

Formulas and bonding

Basic molecular shapes

Basic types of crystal packings

The water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles


To design and explore systems:  Solutions

The water cycle and water pollution

Water treatment


To investigate and design a system: Chemical reactions






Metabolic cycles

ChemDiscovery is delivered on a CD-ROM with a teacher guide and two accompanying books: a student guide, and a hands-on laboratory manual. In addition, the teacher CD-ROM contains detailed information on the Quests, solutions to assignments, and photocopy masters for worksheets and assessments.

3. How ChemDiscovery Works

Each Quest formulates learning goals that students can meet directly through the activities or by first exploring one of two contextual motivation tools: Design of the Universe and/or Living in the Universe. These tools allow students to enter the world of chemistry from environmental, scientific, and social perspectives. Because students choose their starting point and design unique pathways through the learning environment, a teacher can accommodate different learning styles and different levels of difficulty in the same classroom. A field work guide shows teachers how to introduce field experiences that relate the principles they are learning to their lives.

Design activities are not ordinarily encountered by secondary school students (6). Yet design processes play important roles in our daily lives as well as in science and engineering (7,8). The ChemDiscovery design activities involve students in understanding needs and responsibilities, selecting raw materials, checking databases, predicting the properties of objects (nuclei, atoms, ions, molecules, crystals, and larger systems), designing them, and evaluating their predictions by performing hands-on laboratory experiments. As they carry out their design projects, students become engaged in authentic scientific practices. That is, students using ChemDiscovery work like scientists with the aid of course learning tools (Table 2).

Table 2: Learning Tools Provided by the ChemDiscovery Learning Environment

These Inquiry Steps Use These Supported Learning Tools
Observe phenomena and formulate problems

The environment

Hands-on labs

Video labs
Search for information and  choose materials Resources and databases
Design, model, and construct chemical objects  or phenomena Design studios
Analyze structures and predict properties

Interactive computer activities

Check predictions and make discoveries in the laboratory

Computer feedback

Hands-on labs

Video labs

Assume responsibility for the environment

Living in the Universe

Field work

ChemDiscovery assessments include both traditional tests and evaluations of inquiry skills. For example, the assessments require students to design, model, and construct chemical objects and phenomena. They also evaluate student ability to use professional scientific databases, the same type used by scientists.

4. A Typical Class

A day in a typical ChemDiscovery classroom begins when the teacher introduces the learning objectives for a topic and relates them to previous work. She then gives each student a navigational checklist to fill in while completing the activities. Each group of students maps out a learning pathway and begins to work the hands-on lab or to solve the problems presented by the computer. Some of the activities are completed on the computer and the results are printed for the teacher to review. Others are completed on worksheets using the resources and databases on the computer.

Figure 2. This menu introduces students to a series of design and prediction activities. (Larger View)

For example, in Quest 5 (Fig. 2), students use periodic table databases to predict the formulas of the products formed when two elements react. They enter formulas on a computer web page and receive feedback on their predictions from the computer. In the design studio students model chemical equations for reactions between the elements (Fig. 3). They then use model kits along with a worksheet to complete molecular-level drawings of chemical reactions. After students have worked on their assignments for a while the teacher reviews the main points of the lesson. A final Quest 5 assignment may involve a fieldwork activity in which students find examples of chemical reactions such as corrosion in their neighborhoods. 

Figure 3. Students use this design studio to model chemical reactions between the elements. (Larger View)

5. The Classroom Impact

During the field testing of the ChemDiscovery curriculum three aspects of learning chemistry were investigated: the level to which teachers adapted to the new approach, the barriers to implementation, and changes in classroom climate and interactions. Teachers in several of the classrooms were observed using ChemDiscovery and students and teachers in all classrooms kept daily journals in which they reported their experiences and concerns.

Traditional as well as technical barriers are commonly encountered when teachers introduce computer-based chemistry experiences. Therefore, it was not surprising that most of the field-test teachers needed help in locating enough computers to run the curriculum. The State of Colorado was approached to inquire whether the state would be willing to provide computers for ten classrooms. The classrooms would then serve as model science technology classrooms and the teachers would serve as technology experts in their districts. The state agreed and once the computers were in place, the hardware problems encountered implementing the curriculum were mainly associated with the local area network configurations in the schools. In general, teachers found that setting up their computer classrooms took longer than they had anticipated and in some cases, the computers were not even delivered by the beginning of classes. However, eventually all the teachers were running the software. As with any new approach, teachers found they needed to allow extra time for preparation and for dealing with unexpected problems.

Observers noted that the integral use of technology in the classroom changed the focus of student-teacher interactions from a teacher-led lecture format to one in which students spent more time working cooperatively in groups and teachers spent more time acting as facilitators (9). During the field test of the curriculum two of the teachers were observed on a regular basis and the time spent by teachers and students on different classroom activities was noted (10). Each teacher taught one class in a traditional manner, without the use of computers, and one in which the class used ChemDiscovery as the primary curriculum. In the ChemDiscovery classrooms the teachers spent about the same amount of time facilitating independent student work (38%) as they did lecturing (40%). However, in classrooms where they used traditional teaching methods the teachers spent much more time lecturing (58%) than they did facilitating (13%). All the teachers alternated the facilitator role with more traditional roles, depending on the classroom activity. The degree to which a teacher played a facilitator role depended on the degree to which the teacher was committed to student-centered learning. The extent to which lectures and textbooks were used was also related to the degree to which the teacher was committed to independent learning. Teachers who were fully committed to independent learning were more likely to use the curriculum as intended. Those more comfortable with traditional, lecture-based methods of teaching were more likely to add lectures or textbooks.  

Learning to teach in accord with the science teaching standards, which were new at the time, especially learning to teach via inquiry, required additional training and ongoing support for the teachers. However, all the teachers felt that they had learned new skills. One teacher reported (11):

The presence of computers in my classroom has dramatically altered my approach to instruction, enhanced my understanding of my instructional areas, re-energized my instruction, and changed my professional goals. I was a classroom teacher with 21 years of successful experience but I was preparing to become an administrator, in part because the classroom had lost its challenge. The addition of computers to my classroom caused me to wonder exactly how this new technology would mesh with what I knew so well. What has evolved is a dynamic learning environment in which both instructor and student continuously refine their knowledge base through web access. The availability of world-wide access to informational resources has caused me to restructure my course work so that informational support of content is not only text based, but also web based.

One of the biggest differences between a ChemDiscovery classroom and a traditional classroom is the extent to which students learn independently. Students who were used to more traditional learning environments, with textbooks and lectures, found independent learning a challenge and needed more guidance to begin. However, despite the initial resistance from some students, teachers found advantages to the active learning approach. For example, one teacher claimed that her students had learned the material to such a depth that they no longer needed to cram for exams (9):

It became their information instead of information that they were cramming, you know, from a book. It was inside of them. They had the pieces. And they had the understanding without trying to, they have the puzzle put together. There was much more coherent, cohesive understanding of how it all goes together.

Another teacher reported (11),

The students have had to learn how to learn in a whole new way. They are no longer given the knowledge that I think is important but have to search and research for themselves. Making critical decisions of this kind has certainly stretched and frustrated them. I think that they have become better learners in the long run.

6. Conclusions

Previous studies have shown that students are willing to learn with new technologies and find unique advantages to learning with molecular modeling  tools and simulations when they have control over the modeling and simulation process (12,13,14,15). The findings of the field test of this new approach to teaching chemistry are consistent with those studies. A primary goal of the field test evaluation was to discover whether using a computer-centered inquiry curriculum fosters independent student activities. Both observer reports and teacher journals imply that the students were not only working independently, but that they may have been becoming more successful learners. Students successful at learning use more active learning strategies than those used by immature learners (16). For example, they connect new knowledge to what they already know, they organize and review their knowledge and monitor their understanding, while immature learners use more passive learning strategies. This study suggests that interactive multimedia courseware may be able to help teachers to provide a learning environment that encourages the development of active learning strategies by requiring students to learn independently.

7. Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Ron Anderson, University of Colorado at Boulder, and his former students Cory Buxton and Megan Mistler-Jackson, for their insightful evaluation of ChemDiscovery classrooms, and Richard Mayer, University of California at Santa Barbara, for helpful comments on this article. The authors would also like to acknowledge the support of the National Science Foundation Division of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Science Education, for their funding of the development and evaluation of ChemDiscovery through Project #ESI-9550545. Additional funding was provided by the Soros Foundation and by the Technology Learning Grant and Revolving Loan Program of the State of Colorado Department of Higher Education.


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(2) Agapova, O., Jones, L, & Ushakov, A., ChemDiscovery, Kendall-Hunt: Dubuque, IA, 2002:

(3) Agapova, O., Jones, L., and Ushakov, A., Informatika I Obrazovanie, 1, 105-109, 1996.

(4) National Research Council, National Science Education Standards. National Academy Press. Washington D.C., 1996. Available at:

(5) Jones, L, Jordan, K., and Stillings, N., Molecular Visualization in Science Education: Report from the Molecular Visualization in Science Education Workshop (2001): 

(6) Jones, L. L., Uniserve News, 14, November, 1999:

(7) Agapova, O.I., Ushakov, A.S., Think, 12, 7-9, 1998.

(8) Agapova, O.I., Ushakov, A.S., Technos, 8, (1), 27-31, 1999.

(9) Anderson, R., Buxton, C. and Mistler-Jackson, M., Evaluation of the ChemQuest program in the context of the third year field test. National Science Foundation (1999)

(10) Schoenfeld-Tacher, R., Madden, S., Pentecost, T., Mecklin, C. and Jones, L., A Systematic Comparison of Technology-Based and Traditional High School Chemistry Classrooms, National Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Boston, MA, March 30, 1999.

(11) Jones, L. L., Technology Excellence in Learning Award Final Report: Technology-based Model Science Classrooms. Colorado Commission on Higher Education (1999).

(12) Jones, L. L., New Initiatives in Chemical Education (Summer, 1996):

(13) Wu, H-K., Krajcik, J. S., and Soloway, E., Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38, (7), 821-842, 2001.

(14) Dori, Y. J., and Barak, M. Educational Technology and Society, 4, (1), 61-73, 2001.

(15) Jones, L. L. and Smith, S. G., Pure and Applied Chemistry, 65, 245-249, 1993.

(16) Friedler, Y., Nachmias, R., and Songer, N. B., School Science and Mathematics, 89, 58-67, 1989.

Posted February 25, 2003.

Last modified 20.07.03

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