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Research team brewing up better ways to learn chemistry

Ask students how they like their caffeine molecules and most will say hot, fresh and in a cup.

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Ana Sepulveda, left, and her colleague Yuritzel Moreno presented their poster about chemistry education at the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference in Vancouver in June 2014.                     
— Supplied by Ana Sepulveda

But ask first-year chemistry students how they prefer to study the popular stimulate drug and you will find that the answer varies — as one Mount Royal University research team has found.

Two undergraduates recently partnered with associate professor Brett McCollum, PhD, to explore how CHEM 1201 students best learn the complex topic of molecular shape. The research team was interested in how their subjects interacted with different forms of technology when viewing molecules (such as caffeine).

Study participants were presented with old-fashioned paper sketches, model kits and digital renderings on an iPad.

“You could really see the differences between people and how they learn,” said Ana Sepulveda, a fourth-year Bachelor of Science student. “Some wouldn’t touch the paper copy whereas others would pick it up — those were the kinesthetic learners.

“The more visually inclined people liked the iPad because it was a fixed image that could also be manipulated.”

Others preferred the tablet computer to the model kits because it was more convenient, she added.

All of the students underwent systematic interviews, which were then transcribed and analyzed. The researchers discovered students’ preferred choice depended on their environment. Seventy per cent of participants preferred the iPad when they were in the classroom, compared to 40 per cent of those studying outside the classroom.

Sepulveda hopes her research will help the next generation of Mount Royal students better understand how molecular shape impacts the result of every chemical reaction in our universe.“You have to be able to picture a molecule and then be able to manipulate it in your head,” she said. “It’s really hard to do that on paper so we want to make it easier for future students to learn.”

Academics are clearly impressed.

Mount Royal contingent recognized at national chemistry conference, presenting at upcoming symposium in Banff

At the 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference in Vancouver in June, Sepulveda and her colleague Yuritzel Moreno were awarded second place in the undergraduate competition.

It was the first year that Mount Royal students competed in the poster competition. The local team was up against students from well-funded research groups at top-tier research-focused universities.

McCollum called the recognition “an indicator of the quality of Ana and Yuritzel's work and preparation.”

Sepulveda has also been invited to participate in a panel of undergraduate researchers at the Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to be held November 6-8 in Banff.

The team will be submitting an article detailing their research to Teaching and Learning Inquiry, the official publication of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

“The next step is to transition our findings from the research lab into the classroom,” said McCollum, an associate professor, Apple Distinguished Educator and Nexen Scholar.

Sepulveda, meanwhile, thanked McCollum and Mount Royal for sponsoring her work, which has provided experiential learning outcomes.

“Not only has it been an awesome research opportunity, but I’ve learned tons about my own learning style,” she said.

Oct. 6, 2014 — Bryan Weismiller