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Tom Greenbowe, Chemistry, (515) 294-7815
Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917


AMES, Iowa -- An Iowa State University professor's method of "guiding" college students through chemistry lab work is having an impact in the classroom.

Tom Greenbowe, an Iowa State University professor of chemistry, has been working to improve chemistry education for more than 15 years. He has been working on a 'guided inquiry' approach to chemistry education, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, for the past two years.

Greenbowe reported on the guided inquiry method in chemistry during the 2002 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Feb. 14 - 19, in Boston. Greenbowe's presentation, "Students' Understanding of Thermochemical Concepts in the Context of Calorimetry," was part of a symposium (on Feb. 15) that reported on several science disciplines that use similar learning approaches.

Chemistry labs provide students with "hands on" experiences that reinforce basic chemistry principles taught in lecture. Too often the labs become step-by-step procedures the student follows with little time given to understanding the underlying concepts, said Greenbowe, who routinely travels around Iowa giving presentations to generate youth interest in chemistry.

The guided inquiry approach requires the student to be a more active participant and the lab instructor to act as a guide, Greenbowe said. In this method, students first develop a few questions they think they can answer based on what they will be doing in the lab.

"When they perform an experiment and observe, it usually doesn't match up with what they predicted, so the students have to re-orient how they are thinking," Greenbowe said. "They have to pause and say: 'Why didn't that happen the way it was supposed to happen.'" They also must put their observations in context with the observations of other student teams.

Greenbowe said guided inquiry encourages learning in the lab, while the experiment takes place, so students don't have to go home and work on a lab report.

"The goal is to do everything in the lab period," Greenbowe explained. "There is very little to mop up, and they should walk out of there with a better understanding of what it is that they did.

"We think this develops better conceptual understanding," he added. "We're getting them to understand the concepts. Students don't just plug numbers into formulas, use a calculator, get a number, and not understand what that number represents."

Results have been promising but mixed, Greenbowe said. Students wanting to understand chemistry like the approach. Students who just want to collect data, leave the lab and work on the report in the dorm or at home, do not prefer the approach.

With just limited pieces of the method implemented thus far, "we see a statistically significant difference in students who learn this way," he said. "It might make a difference of half of a letter grade. It might help a student who would've received a C, earn a C+."

Greenbowe is collaborating with Thomas Andre and Brian Hand, both Iowa State professors of curriculum and instruction, in this project.


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