Carving Snow and Molding Minds: Chemical Educators Use Evidence-Based Teaching to Further General Chemistry Understanding Among Undergrads

Lecturers Ozcan Gulacar and Julia Chamberlain

By Doug Banda


How does one learn a new skill, like snowboarding? Watching a video or listening to an experienced friend often help, but one doesn’t truly learn to carve snow until they put the words into practice and strap the board to their boots. What makes learning science as a skill any different? Sure, knowing the charts and memorizing the numbers can help you pass the class, but actually applying the knowledge to unanswered problems and doing the experiments are what make scientists. Drs. Julia Chamberlain and Ozcan Gulacar bring these same ideas to their classrooms, where they use active learning strategies to help students apply knowledge and practice problem solving as they learn general chemistry.

The two were hired by the Chemistry Department in July 2015 as lecturers with potential for security of employment (LPSOE). One can think of the title as similar to a tenure-track teaching professor. However, instead of researching chemistry as a scientific field, they research how students learn chemistry and what tools can be used in the classroom to help students learn more effectively.

“Chemical education is the general area I’m interested in,” starts Dr. Gulacar, who received his Ph.D. in Science Education from Western Michigan University. “Particularly, I am interested in problem solving and cognitive and meta-cognitive processes. We are closely looking at the interactions between knowledge structure and problem solving ability. The core idea is that people construct their knowledge as they learn something new. The better you organize your knowledge, then that becomes more effective, and you can solve problems more successfully.”  

Lecturers Ozcan Gulacar and Julia ChamberlainDr. Chamberlain received her Ph.D. in solid state inorganic chemistry from Northwestern University and then went on to postdoc in chemical education research at University of Colorado, Boulder. “My postdoc was in education technology design, specifically interactive simulations. This is different from how researchers would simulate a molecule to calculate [its] energy or bond lengths. Instead, educational simulations provide an exploratory space for a student to mess around and learn, like we would with a chemistry kit or taking apart a toaster. I’ll design a space where a student can learn about a chemistry topic by exploring and experimenting.”

Here at UC Davis, her research includes incorporating education technology in the classroom. She asks questions such as, “What advantages do different technologies bring, and how do we leverage those benefits for teaching chemistry?” Both researchers are interested in strengthening a student’s understanding of chemistry by giving students opportunities to practice what they are learning in class, where the instructor can provide feedback.

Although not traditionally part of a chemistry lecture, feedback is crucial for learning a new skill. Snowboarders know that from their first time eating snow to their last big air bail--falling down provides feedback that helps one correct balance, build muscle memory, and better read the slope on the next run. Making mistakes is vital for improvement. In the chemistry classroom, Drs. Chamberlain and Gulacar spend less time lecturing and more time engaging students in problem solving exercises, so that mistakes and misunderstandings can be actively addressed and learned from.

Moreover, Dr. Chamberlain points out that working with students in this way has the propensity to help diversify STEM fields, “Some studies show the groups we are trying to bring into science and chemistry now--such as underrepresented minorities, women, first-generation college students--succeed more when active learning is used in the class.”

Strategies such as active learning come from evidence-based teaching, where the methods used to teach are based on reliable evidence derived from experiments that show better outcomes for students. “You can study teaching the same way you study science and use teaching techniques that have research to back them up,” starts Dr. Chamberlain, “When I use new teaching methods, these ideas and practices are all based on evidence from research studies. They have some demonstrated evidence that they work.”

Dr. Gulacar adds it is important for students to understand how they teach in the classroom is based on the research of the science educator community, “We do research and follow the literature. Based on our findings and others’ recommendations, we utilize certain tools and methods in our classrooms, but we do not stop there. As we teach, we always think critically and collect more data on [these tools and methods] and measure their effectiveness in enhancing students’ understanding and promoting skills such as problem-solving, communication and team-working. If there is a need, we modify those methods and tools and are constantly reshaping our classes. Certainly, there is a great interaction between what we do in our classrooms and what we find out in our studies.”

Teaching effectively to one of the nation’s largest general chemistry-taking undergrad populations is not an easy feat. It takes the passion, patience and practice of dedicated researchers, instructors and graduate students alike to bring an education to students that will not only promote more placement in STEM careers, but also promote the advancement of technologies to help solve continuing world issues such as global climate change and developing sustainable energy. So whether you’re hitting the slopes or performing your first acid-base titration, do your research beforehand, stay attentive to those who have the patience to build you up, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes--they’ll only make you better. UC Davis instructors have your best interest in mind.