November 1998 // Case Studies
Using Technology to Enhance the Effectiveness of Chemistry Courses
by Harvey Moody
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Harvey Moody "Using Technology to Enhance the Effectiveness of Chemistry Courses" The Technology Source, November 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Computer applications such as spreadsheets, molecular modeling, and data acquisition are essential tools for teaching chemistry. These educational tools, used wisely, could provide the key to unlock a treasure chest of chemical knowledge for students.

Chemistry is dynamic; molecules are constantly moving, even when they are not reacting. In the past, aside from an occasional movie or demonstration, lectures about chemistry have necessarily been static. However, when I combined presentation technology with molecular modeling software in my classes, it became possible to show how chemical reactions happen, both at the macroscopic and the molecular level. Beyond this, historical images can offer a context for references that in the past might have simply passed over the heads of the students, and the incorporation of chemistry in action enlivens the course.

Information Technology to Lead the Future

Floyd College, a two-year institution of the University System of Georgia, is pioneering a universal access program for educational resources. For the fall 1998 semester, every student and professor received a laptop computer and access to the Internet on a twenty-four-hour basis. In addition, each computer came with Microsoft Office. The objectives of this universal access program are:

  • to foster significant improvements in learning by facilitating the use of the most advanced and proven educational technologies;
  • to develop a strong command of information technologies and the telecommunications skills required by employers in a knowledge–based economy; and
  • to enhance educational opportunities and achievement by making national and international resources available to all students.

In preparation for Floyd College's becoming a "laptop college," administrative leaders selected certain courses as pilots and converted selected classrooms to handle the incoming technology during the 1996-97 academic year. I developed Organic Chemistry I as one of the pilot "intensive technology project courses" taught during the Winter quarter of 1997, and continued with General Chemistry I and II during the Summer of 1997.

My immediate challenge was to determine how best to use technology to increase learning. Since this was my first attempt at teaching a technology-based course, I decided to use a combination of methods, including multimedia lectures, virtual office hours, Internet activities, and HTML-based tutorials. The goal of this approach was to eventually make the transition from a teacher-centered approach to education to a student-centered one.

Like many faculty members interested in using technology to support courses, I started by creating Web pages as a way to provide basic information to the students enrolled in the class. My early attempts were simplistic, and consisted of putting the course syllabus and a minimal amount of information relating to the class on the Web. These Web pages consisted of text and lists of hypertext links to related Web sites where students could access supplemental information. Early student interviews then helped identify several trends, which helped us decide which direction we wanted to take for further development of course Web pages.

Course Template

Currently, my courses utilize a Web page template that can be customized for each class during the quarter. This provides a consistency between courses that allows students to locate class information easily. The template consists of the following nine components:

  1. Course Information—Syllabus
    The syllabus component contains all policies and procedures for the course, instructions on how to contact the instructor, class times and locations, required course materials, attendance policy, grading policy, learning outcomes, and expected results.

  2. Assignments
    The assignments component contains a list of all daily assignments, with links to related Web sites.

  3. Laboratory Information
    The Laboratory Information component contains a list of laboratory assignments, links to online pre–laboratory quizzes, and related Web sites.

  4. Online Quizzes
    The Online Quiz component contains pre–laboratory quizzes that are submitted electronically by the students. These quizzes were created using the Simple Start Quiz For–Building Tool.

    The pre–laboratory assignments contain both text and graphic tutorials and multiple–choice questions to familiarize students with the experiments before their laboratory session. When these quizzes are submitted electronically, they are automatically graded and the results sent to both me and the student. This provides immediate feedback to the students and helps the instructor ensure that students are prepared for the laboratory.

    The advantages of using online quizzes include an ease of administration and grading that can save faculty members significant amounts of time. When a student submits his test via the Web, the system grades the test and sends the student and the professor an e-mail copy of the test, including the grade. Giving students an opportunity to assess where they stand and how they may improve their skills can give them more confidence and help them see the new tools as advancements for, not obstacles to, their learning experience.

  5. Bulletins
    The Bulletins component consists of messages noting changes in schedule and important course events. Announcements can also be made and questions can be asked of the entire class.

  6. Course Notes
    The Course Notes component contains lecture notes in PowerPoint format that the students may view or download and print out for class.

  7. Tutorials
    The Tutorials component contains Web–based information organized by textbook chapter. These tutorials consist of original material as well as Web links to other sites for supplemental information.

  8. Web Links
    Links to additional Web sites are included in this section in order to stimulate further learning. In the belief that quality is more important than quantity, only the most helpful Web sites are listed.

  9. E-mail
    E-mail is used for submission and feedback on assignments, completion of pre–laboratory quizzes, and replying to student questions. Students are required to send e-mail to the instructor during the first week of classes to ensure that they are familiar with the system. The use of e-mail allows for "virtual office hours," which give the students access to the instructor at times of their choosing.

    Communication among faculty and students is further enhanced by having network access. Often students who feel uncomfortable asking questions during class may ask their questions electronically. Discussions among students and between the professor and the students enhance the flow of information and help increase learning.

    During the course of my classes, students averaged 1.8 class-related e-mail messages a week. Due to the small class size, this did not significantly increase my workload. However, the potential does exist for the professor teaching in this manner to have a significant number of messages to answer.

PowerPoint Lecture Presentations

In addition to the course Web page, other multimedia techniques were employed to enhance the effectiveness of the course. All lectures utilized PowerPoint as the medium of delivery, as opposed to the traditional chalkboard or white-board. Presentations were shown directly on TV sets in the classroom or on a screen with a multimedia projector. One unique feature of PowerPoint is the ability to closely integrate text, calculations, molecular structures, and images. The educational power of images is well-established; although there is disagreement about the mechanism, educational psychologists seem to be in agreement that pictures improve the ability to remember text, especially if the pictures and text are presented together. Research results also show the importance of contiguity, having the text and the images presented simultaneously. PowerPoint makes it possible to combine text and images on the same frame, and so offers many students a more effective tool for remembering concepts than text alone. Furthermore, preparing my slides ahead of time required me to fine-tune the content of my class, and made me pay closer attention to the value of each of my visuals, their sequencing, and my lecture cadence. In addition to this, not having to draw a complex visual (e.g., a positioning map) on the board saved class time. And knowing that the PowerPoint slides would be available for later viewing or downloading from our network, the students could concentrate on the discussion rather than on being scribes.

LabWorks Laboratory Interfacing System

Another way in which we brought technology into the class was by using LabWorks, a complete learning system from Jones and Bartlett Publishers and SCI Technologies that allows for the integration of computers into a chemistry lab. LabWorks allows the focus of a lab to shift from data collection to data analysis and experiment design. It offers students the opportunity to participate in research-grade data collection and become involved in the actual process of science. It is especially useful for experiments in which data is collected extremely rapidly or extremely slowly, a graphical representation is useful, or research-grade data collection is important.

The LabWorks system has three basic components:

  • LabWorks Hardware
    The LabWorks Interface is a versatile data acquisition device that may be used to read analog and/or digital signals from a variety of sensors and instruments. Built-in signal conditioning electronics allow the user to make measurements from any type of sensing device that produces a small analog signal (a voltage or current) or digital pulses.

  • LabWorks Software
    LabWorks experiment programs read like BASIC, but are designed for selecting commands from a menu with a mouse or keyboard, which eliminates syntax and typing errors. The ability to create new experiments or modify existing experiments permits students to begin to focus on experiment design, the most complex component of the scientific process.

  • LabWorks Experiments and Curriculum Support Materials
    Curriculum support materials that enhance the learning process are integral components of the LabWorks system and are available from Jones and Bartlett Publishers. These materials include collections of experiments and measurement manuals.

In comparison to traditional chemistry lab experiments, the LabWorks system allows students to spend the majority of their time designing the experiment and analyzing the data, placing the emphasis where it should be, rather than on data collection.

Creating the Class Web Pages

There are many tools available that allow one to create Web pages easily and effectively. I used several packages that are readily available for little or no cost.

Web Browser

Microsoft Internet Explorer was chosen as the preferred browser. The latest version includes FrontPage Express, which allows the user to create Web pages in true WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) format, and more importantly allows for the use of all of the capabilities of Chemscape Chime.

Chemscape Chime

Chemscape Chime is a plug-in available for both Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator that allows scientists to view chemical information directly on an HTML page. Chime supports most of the popular molecular-structure display formats in current use, including MDL Information Systems, Inc., Molfile, and Rxnfile, as well as many of the popular 3D display formats, such as the Brookhaven Protein Databank (PDB) format.

Prior to the development of this capability, modeling was accomplished using plastic models. The highly symbolic two-dimensional representations of molecules in chalkboard drawings and textbooks, however, fail to adequately convey the sense of molecular geometry necessary for many students to appreciate structure-property relationships at the molecular level. The use of computer modeling can help solve a fundamental problem in teaching chemistry: visualizing the structure of chemical models. In a textbook or on a chalkboard, students are limited to a static photo that shows only one position. The use of active models allows students to rotate the molecule with a mouse in order to easily view the three-dimensionality of the molecules. By using the mouse, students can much more easily visualize molecular geometry and demonstrate chemical principles.

Having the ability to view molecular structure in three dimensions was an extremely important feature of the class Web resources, since organic chemistry relies heavily on visualizations of molecular structures in three dimensions. In addition, this "Cyber Molecular Model Kit" replaced the typical plastic models that students usually purchase. Chime allows for the three-dimensional manipulation of images directly on the computer monitor. It is available free, and therefore all students were able to have direct access to the "Cyber Molecular Models" that I created using SymApps and sources on the Internet. And by using a combination of Java scripts, Chime, and Web page control, high-impact question-and-answer course material can also be produced.


In addition to the three-dimensional molecular images, many two-dimensional chemical structures were available on the Web pages. These were created using Bio-Rad's ChemWindowDB and ChemWeb, and some three-dimensional images of molecular structures were rendered using Bio-Rad’s SymApps.

Animated GIFS

Animated GIFs are standard GIF89a files with multiple images and timing information. While Java, Shockwave, and CGI scripts all allow developers to add motion to Web pages, animated GIFs have three major advantages over these technologies: they are easy to create, they don't tax your server, and you can view a GIF89a image with almost any browser. The separate frames of the image are reloaded from the browser's cache and played in an infinite loop. The Windows shareware application Microsoft GIF Animator allows for easy creation of animated GIF89a images. I found two types of animated images especially interesting:

  • Fluid Animations
    These are probably what most people think of when they think of animation. They are perfectly sequenced animations of a number of stills that, when put together with just the right time delay per frame, give a perfectly fluid animation, like watching a movie. Of course, there is a price to pay for this kind of quality. They take a lot of time to make, contain a large number of frames, and result in very large files.
  • Sequenced Frame Animations
    As an example of this type of picture, I used a depiction of an SN2 reaction to create a sequenced frame animation. I took ten single still images and inserted them into a sequence so that the different views were visible, but it was not meant as a fluid animation. These images take less time to create and aren't as attractive, but they generally require fewer frames and hence smaller file sizes. They are best used to illustrate a process where the different stages are more important than what happens between the stages.

Survey Results

No technology is effective if the audience for whom it is designed is unable or unwilling to use it. With this in mind, I conducted a student survey to determine what their opinions of the Web pages and other technologies were. Students responded that they used the Web pages to study the material and that they printed out the lecture notes before coming to class. Simply by virtue of printing out the class notes, they spent less time taking notes and more time listening to the lecture. In general, the use of computers was well-received by the students. The most positive reactions were summed up in these responses: (a) having the ability to communicate with the instructor and other class members via e-mail, (b) having access lecture notes on the Web, and (c) having access to the "Cyber Molecular Model Kit" and to Internet resources. More specific   results of the student survey are shown below:

Student Behavior More likely No Difference Less likely
Ask teacher a question. 17% 83% 0%
Learn class content. 67% 17% 17%
Participate outside of scheduled class time. 50% 33% 17%
Think more before answering. 67% 33% 0%
Survey Statement Yes No Difference No
Class was better due to the use of the instructional technologies. 66% 17% 17%
Instructional technologies allowed me to understand the course material. 66% 17% 17%
The computer applications allowed me to visualize information easier. 83% 17% 0%
Completing the online quiz helped prepare me for the upcoming laboratory.  66% 17% 17%
The Internet instructional technologies used in this course were beneficial to me. 50% 33% 17%
I prefer PowerPoint presentations to the use of the chalkboard. 100% 0% 0%
I learned more using LabWorks hardware and software in the laboratory. 55% 36% 9%


It is important to note that this template is an ever-evolving work. Creating Web pages is a labor-intensive process. For faculty members who are excited by the rapid growth of the Web and who want to explore its potential, the template I used in this class may serve as a starting point.

My first experiments with technology-enhanced instruction demonstrate that it has great potential for strengthening students' academic performance. Technology-enhanced courses do not simply allow for the creation of lecture presentations that are rich in images, they also bring together text and images in ways that have significant educational benefits.

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