When fancy technology isn’t needed (a.k.a Why is Chemistry different?)

“What’s my login again?” said a chemistry student.  He was trying to access one of our course resources on my Moodle site for the first time in weeks.  “Uh, don’t you have that plugged into your browser or written down somewhere?” was my slightly annoyed reply. He eventually figured it out, but it brought to my attention the fact that my chemistry classes had not been using our class set of laptops nearly as much as my other classes have.

In biology, for example, we use Edmodo at least once a week for sending out assignments that students also turn back in online.  Usually the assignments involve visiting resources on the Net and discussing what they learn.  We have also used Edmodo as a chat room during some of our online explorations.  The laptops are also used with Vernier probes to collect data during labs such as the enzyme catalysis lab. Students also take notes using the laptops.

In anatomy and physiology, students use the laptops every day for note taking and internet research purposes.  They also use them with Vernier probes for several labs such as EKG, EMG, spinal reflex, heart rate, and blood pressure labs.

AP Biology students use the laptops nearly every day for note taking and research. They also do many of the AP Biology required labs using Vernier probes such as colorimeters, pressure sensors, dissolved oxygen sensors, and carbon dioxide sensors.

My chemistry course, though, has used the laptops mostly for online (Moodle) quizzes and some lab data collection. We have pulled out the laptops for a couple special projects like the one that we are working on now, but most of the learning experiences have been from our textbook.   That bugs me.  As an experimenter with 1:1 environments, it really bothers me that I have a course that essentially went a whole month without touching the laptops in class.  So why is chemistry different?

For starters, chemistry books don’t go out of date as fast as biology texts do.  Sure there are some fun new technologies that are being developed at the frontiers of physical science (we’re studying some of those now) but most of the chemistry that gets taught at the high school level doesn’t change much from year to year. In biology, though, I mostly ignore our biology textbook when it comes to giving assignments, and those books are only two years old. That means that I am often sending biology students online for recent information and learning resources, while chemistry students head for chapter 12, pages 358 to 363.

Another factor has got to be the math and symbols used in chemistry.  It is simply easier to write out chemical and mathematical equations on paper. Our drought on the computers was timed exactly with our unit on stoichiometry, a calculation-intensive subject. Sure, there are stoichiometry tutorials online, but our class time was spent working practice problems on worksheets or out of the book, very low-tech indeed.

I wonder, too, how much of the difference is due to sheer inertia on my part.  In other words, am I teaching chemistry in a textbook-heavy way because that’s how I have always done it? Is this first year with the laptops so overwhelming that I can’t bear to transition one more prep over to completely new resources?

It could be, though, that there are at least some topics in chemistry that good old paper and pencil are still the best tools for.  I can also think of several chemistry demos that only work with old-fashioned overhead projectors and could not be done (live) with an LCD projector.

So in closing, I’d like to pass a warning on to administrators and parents and other “stakeholders” in educating our students to not expect teachers to be using laptop/iPod/netbook/iwb technology 100% of the time.  There are times when they are an awesome resource and powerful tools.  And yes, you just spent a ton of money equipping your school with them and feel entitled to see them put to use. But there are also times when they get in the way of student learning. Educators need to be trusted to know when an old-fashioned overhead projector, or even the lowly pencil, is the best tool for the job.

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