Evidence-Based Teaching is Alive and Well at MIT

Published in MIT News on April 1, 2016 by Elizabeth Durant, Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education

MacVicar Day symposium features a sampling of innovative pedagogical practices and lessons learned.

At the MacVicar Day symposium on March 11, Catherine Drennan shared a conundrum she encountered in her first job as a high school chemistry teacher: Her students didn’t seem to grasp how the chemical principles they were learning in the classroom could be applied in the real world.

Drennan, who is now a professor of chemistry and biology at MIT, recalled a lab exercise her students performed, which is standard fare in high school introductory chemistry. It’s an acid/base titration to measure the acid strength, or pKa, of a weak acid. “I feel like students [were] wondering, ‘Is this a big problem that somehow hasn’t been [solved]?’ [As if there are] these warehouses of weak acids, and if only there were more trained chemists then we would be able to do something with it.”

MacVicar Panel 2016Moreover, it was clear to Drennan that her students couldn’t imagine becoming chemists themselves. “I showed them pictures of chemists,” she said wryly, displaying a slide with the likenesses of Amedeo Avogadro (1776-1856), John Dalton (1776-1844), and Robert Boyle (1627-1691). “So I’m not really sure why they couldn’t see themselves as chemists.”

After joining the MIT faculty, Drennan was surprised to find that undergrads in 5.111 (Principles of Chemical Science) struggled with the same issues. She decided to address the problem by creating a series of 2-to-5-minute videos to use in her classes. The videos connect basic chemical principles with real-world applications, such as detecting landmines, fighting cancer, and developing biofuels. More importantly, they feature MIT students doing research in these areas. “[The videos] show the different faces of chemistry,” she said, “so students weren’t just seeing these pictures of dead chemists...”

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