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Atomic Mass for the Masses — A Review of the Rice University Chemistry MOOC

When I went off to college as an undergraduate my intention was to major in chemistry.  That plan lasted for about a semester as, for a variety of reasons,  I found myself quickly drifting towards the social sciences.  I have no regrets about my life choices, but when I saw the Coursera course listing for Chemistry: Concept Development and Applications I jumped at the chance to see what I missed.

Coursera Review, Chemistry MOOC

from Chiara Tiberti via Pixabay

The instructor of this intro Chemistry MOOC, Dr. John Hutchinson of Rice University, is rather low-key and has a down-to-business approach. He is not the most dynamic lecturer, so if you don’t already have a strong interest in the topic, he is probably not going to pull you in. However, if you can hang in for a couple of weeks, there is a lot to get out of this class, and Dr. Hutchinson does a great job of presenting the material in a concise and understandable manner.

The class uses an framework, designed by Dr. Hutchinson, in which chemical concepts are developed through the presentation of empirical experimental data and reasoning out conclusions. I suspect that the approach works best in an actual classroom where, presumably, at least some of the experiments can be conducted in vivo. In the online learning environment, Dr. Hutchinson presents the results and then walks through the logic that leads to the concept being taught.

For example, the first few lectures in the class were used to develop the atomic molecular theory. This started out by seeing how the examination of the ratios of elements in various compounds can lead to the law of definite proportions — i.e., that elements can come together only in fixed ratios. From there, evidence was presented to demonstrate that elements combine in ratios of small integers and finally to the atomic molecular theory. [pullquote position=”right”]In some cases, the path from the results was compelling, and the technique really enhanced my understanding of the material. In a few cases, however, the data just seem to be thrown out there and did not add much value.[/pullquote]

The ten-week class is described as being roughly equivalent to the first semester of freshman chemistry. My memory of freshman chemistry is hazy, but the Coursera MOOC does not seem like it covered a full semester of material. Most weeks included four lectures, each lasting about 12 to 18 minutes (or roughly an hour of material per week). Other topics covered in the class included stoichiometry (or “chemical analysis” as Dr. Hutchinson called it), the electron shell model and electron energy levels, covalent and ionic bonding, properties of molecules, metals and the energetics of chemical reactions. A free textbook written by Dr. Hutchinson was available for download as a PDF file or for use online. The textbook, however, covers almost exactly the same information in the class, so it did not add much.

The videos were displayed in three segments of the screen. A set of PowerPoint slides that took up the left half of the screen, while Dr. Hutchinson’s face and a writing pad divided the right half. This worked well, though it made the slides too small to be seen well. I would have liked the slides to have been available for download and several of us students kept making that suggestion in the forum. During the last week of the class the slides from one lecture were made available, so perhaps that is an indication that the message got through.

Evaluation in the class was based on weekly multiple-choice quizzes, with about ten to twelve questions per quiz. The questions were pretty straightforward, though occasionally a concept made its way into a question that had appeared in neither the lecture nor the readings and required a bit of googling to answer. I would have liked to have had some additional practice problems to help solidify the knowledge in the lectures.

One thing I found remarkable about this class was how quiet the discussion forum was. In other Coursera MOOCsI have taken, the forum was not only a useful enhancement to the learning process but also contributed to a sense of community for the class. In this class, students occasionally posted messages like “Can someone help me with problem 10?” or “I think my quiz was graded incorrectly,” but that was about it. The teaching assistants in the course were good at answering questions and resolving issues, though it sometimes took them a couple of days to do so.

This was the initial offering of Coursera’s Chemistry: Concept Development and Applications, and, as expected, there were a few bugs to work out. The class was not perfect, but it worked for me. I got what I wanted out of it, and I especially recommend it for someone who is looking to refresh their knowledge. I suspect someone expecting something comparable to a full semester of chemistry will be disappointed. A second part to the course is apparently going to be offered in Fall 2013, and I already have it on my calendar.

Ben Somberg (1 Posts)

A former engineering psychologist, I am currently retired and a true MOOC addict. When not engaged in an online class, I teach psychology at a local university, do volunteer work, read about history and science, watch basebal, and catch up on my napping. I live in Minnesota with my wife and three kids (most of whom I have also convinced to take an online class or two). I love this new world of online education and will be fascinated to see how it evolves.