Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Chemistry students sing their studies, hoping for a good reaction

By Carol Clark

On the last day of the spring semester, during Bill Wuest’s “Principles of Reactivity” course, loud noises rattle the Atwood Chemistry Center’s Atomic Classroom. It isn’t explosions — it’s pop music mixed with bursts of laughter.

“This bond’s alright!” a group of Emory first-year students belts out on a YouTube video playing on screens before the class. Backed by the music of “Oh, What a Night,” they dance before a periodic table, write on a white board and mix chemicals in a lab while singing lyrics they wrote themselves: “Now I use a base to synthesize. It can readily be hydrolyzed. Mechanisms, what a sight!”

In just under four minutes, the students sing key lessons they learned over the semester about carbonyl mechanisms.

“It’s basically describing how reactions go,” explains Rebecca Henderson, one of the performers. “A reaction is not normally just putting two chemicals together and — BOOM — a product comes out. There’s a lot of different steps involved and we wanted to describe some of them, and why a reaction goes down one pathway and not another.”

Henderson created the video with classmates Carson Brooks, Lauren Cohen, Justine Griego and Alex Kim. They all played themselves in the video — except for Kim, who used powder to create a white patch in his hair and portray the professor.

“I love it when they mock me, they get extra points for that,” says Wuest, who has a natural, white streak of hair running through the center of his close-cropped dark hair.

Wuest, who joined Emory in the fall of 2017 as a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator, directs an organic chemistry lab along with teaching undergraduates. He started having students make music parody videos while he was at Temple University.

“A lot of people think that chemistry is dry and boring but there’s a lot of creativity involved in it and that’s often overlooked in classrooms,” Wuest says.

The videos fit in well with Emory’s curriculum. Last fall, Emory became one of the first major research universities to completely overhaul how chemistry is taught, from introductory courses to capstone seminars. The new program, called Chemistry Unbound, moves away from teaching a narrow slice of chemistry every year to jumping into a big-picture understanding of chemistry’s central role across the sciences.

The video assignment helps with those big-picture concepts, Wuest says. Students form groups of up to six to make a two-to-four-minute educational video about some aspect of what they’ve learned in class. The video can either take the form of a musical parody of a well-known song or — for the less adventurous — a more straightforward lesson in the style of the Khan Academy website.

While Wuest is not the first to have chemistry students make videos, he is one of the few to actually measure their effect. With the help of his wife, Liesl Wuest, an educational analyst who also works at Emory, he has compared learning outcomes — in the form of exam performance before and after the videos — and found a strong correlation to improved scores.

His Temple students received extra credit, but not a grade, for making videos. Out of 130 students, 25 percent of them opted to do the videos. The average score for the class on an exam before the video project and an exam following the video project found that those who made videos had an average of 50 percent more improvement in their scores compared to those who opted out.

“Making the videos forces students to think about the material in new ways,” Wuest says. “It also makes the material more memorable to help it stick with them long term.”

Wuest refined the criteria for the video project and turned it into a graded requirement for his Emory classes. The top videos, based on accuracy and execution, will be housed on the Canvas learning management system so that future students can use them for inspiration and study aids.

“I was really impressed with the level of the videos this semester,” Wuest says. “They showcase the quality and the diversity of the students at Emory.”

Wuest plans to continue measuring the effect of the videos on learning. Many of the students, meanwhile, have given the video assignment a big thumb’s up.

“Not only do you learn the material, but it’s a fun experience,” says Dennis Jang, a first-year student.

Jang helped make a video called “I’ll Make a Chemist Out of You,” set to the song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from the Disney movie “Mulan.” The other first year students in his group included Muhammad Dhanani, Alex Fukunaga, Gaby Garcia and Jessie Kwong.

“The hardest part of this project was balancing the content and the comedy,” Jang says. “We presented some broad aspects of what we learned in class and some more specific aspects. And then we added humor to keep the audience watching.”

The formula worked. An informal vote following the screening of the videos in class, based on laughter and applause, showed “I’ll Make a Chemist Out of You” was the clear audience favorite.

“As we were watching all of the videos together we were laughing and just really enjoying being together,” Henderson says. “It was the final wrap-up of a great semester. Bill really knows how to make a true community out of a classroom.”

You can watch more of the videos by clicking here. 

Chemistry synthesizes radical overhaul of undergraduate curriculum

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