Throw the phrase “chemistry class” at someone to get their reaction. What do you predict it would be? A chalkboard full of stoichiometry problems? Wading through the atomic masses on the periodic table? Bubbling beakers? Something else? In any case, I’m guessing his or her first answer would not be, “Creative writing.”
The March 2017 issue of the Journal of Chemical Education matches up these two phrases in the article Written Assignments in Organic Chemistry: Critical Reading and Creative Writing (freely available to all). The author’s specific application is within a university organic chemistry class, but the article could apply to the high school chemistry classroom as well. Rhoad includes two types of what he terms Journaling Assignments in his course, with a goal of increasing students’ depth of conceptual understanding of the material, as well as “develop[ing] in students better critical reading skills that should be applicable in whatever field they choose.”
Of the two types he uses, the one where creative writing comes into play is “SEE–I,” or statement, elaboration, example, illustration. The instructor gives a certain chemistry concept, then students journal each of the four pieces. Creative writing is needed in the fourth step, since the illustration should not use chemical terms, but rather paint a picture that helps one to understand the concept. One example from the online supporting information is an illustration for tautometers, which likens them to two fishing boats, describing the relation of their slightly different arrangements to each other. The topics selected could be easily adjusted to fit one’s specific chemistry curriculum. It is the most difficult step, Rhoads admits, but can also give “the most indication of student understanding of the topic.” The exercise reminded me of part of my son's middle school writing curriculum, Classical Composition. One step of each essay is to develop an analogy that compares an action to a dissimilar action that has the same effect, such as a comparison of preparing for war with developing soccer skills. It is a step that takes some serious thought, but appears to deepen his consideration of the writing topic. I like the idea of integrating this type of writing into chemistry, even in a limited way, as one slightly different way of touching on a concept.
Writing, this time for educators and others in the chemistry community, is also the focus of a letter from this month’s issue, Glaring Chemical Errors Persist for Years on Wikipedia (freely available to all). Mandler speaks to a past article (available to JCE subscribers) about teaching students to critically read a Wikipedia article and to correct it if they find errors. A more recent article, mentioned in the March 2016 Especially JCE post, has a similar suggestion. Mandler brings up specific instances of structural errors (albeit in portions high school students are unlikely to reference at a general chemistry level) that have lingered on Wikipedia even after they are reported. He encourages those in the chemistry community (industry, government, academia) to become Wikipedia editors, so that the resulting pages there reflect what is seen in peer-reviewed literature. Work from the chemistry community is needed so that accurate information can be passed along to readers such as students and the general public who use Wikipedia.
More from the March 2017 Issue
Don’t miss Mary Saecker’s JCE 94.03 March 2017 Issue Highlights for further content from this month’s issue of the Journal. She includes a great “Using Wikipedia and Wikis To Teach” list with multiple articles from the JCE archives.
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