Waterloo announces the launch of free interactive online chemistry content

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Carey Bissonnette and Laura Ingram from Waterloo’s Department of Chemistry have been awarded a 2018 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s PromoScience grant to expand their online secondary school resource program.

In August, Waterloo launched the Open Science website to provide free online lessons in general chemistry, covering topics from the Canadian 11th and 12th grade curricula. Each lesson is designed to work as a stand-alone topic and contains several interactive elements to help students learn.

“I’ve always wanted to give students opportunities to actively engage with the content, and, ideally, to discover key chemistry concepts through experimentation and exploration,” says Bissonnette, a Continuing Lecturer and Senior Teaching Fellow for the Faculty of Science. “The authoring environment we are using to create our content is not only remarkably powerful but also very versatile and easy to use.”

“The Department of Chemistry has a long history of working with, and supporting high-school teachers and students. This project was initiated to address a need for reliable online resources,” says Ingram, a Chemistry Laboratory Instructor and the Outreach Coordinator. “There’s a lack of trustworthy online content and teachers can look to Waterloo to fill that gap. The response has been overwhelming.”

As part of this initiative, Bissonnette and Ingram have launched a professional development program for teachers who want to participate in the creation of an openly available lesson. “We want to foster a “teachers-helping-teachers” approach. The hardest part of developing the online lessons is authoring good content,” says Bissonnette. “If we partner with teachers, they can help with the content creation and we can build the engaging, interactive lesson fairly quickly.”

The PromoScience grants support hands-on learning for Canadian students in primary and secondary schools by improving curriculum content and delivery, as well as for new programs that promote science and engineering.

In the case of Open Science, the hands-on learning is happening virtually using Mobius, a pioneering STEM courseware platform initially developed by Maplesoft, and now owned by DigitalEd. “DigitalEd is looking to expand into science education,” says Ingram. “They have the authoring platform; we have the content and teaching experience.”

The vision for the Open Science site parallels that of the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC), which uses Mobius to create free, online learning resources for the CEMC Courseware site.

The online lessons on the Open Science site feature a combination of text, images, and video and are designed to interact dynamically with students by generating questions spontaneously and giving instant feedback. For example, in the “What is a Mole?” lesson, students can convert between moles, mass, volume, and number of particles for a variety of pure substances. Immediate feedback helps students self-assess their learning.

It’s a far cry from typical online courses where students watch pre-recorded video lectures with PowerPoint slides and submit online assignments for feedback later.

“When students are in control of their learning, it changes the conversation they’re having with their instructors,” adds Ingram. “If we can also relieve instructors from having to create lots of content, they can turn their attention to assessment. It’s as much about getting material into the hands of students, as well as teachers.”

The initial set of lessons includes the Mole Concept, Stoichiometry, Acids and Bases, and Significant Figures. Bissonnette and Ingram are continuing to seek feedback from teachers to add more lesson topics over the next three years of the project.

“Moving forward, high school teachers will be instrumental in storyboarding new lessons for the Open Science site,” says Ingram. “They know where students have the most difficulties, and what lessons will have the greatest impact in their classrooms.”

In developing content for the Open Science site, Bissonnette and Ingram also collaborate extensively with Waterloo’s Centre for Extended Learning, which is celebrating 50 years of experience in developing materials for online education.

Learn more at Open Science website, or contact Laura Ingram and Carey Bissonnette at open.science@uwaterloo.ca.