Dr. Maia Popova, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has received a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study factors shaping instructional practice and student learning in STEM classes. The project — Exploring Connections Between Instructional Practice and Student Learning in Inorganic Chemistry Learning Environments — is a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin – Madison. UNC Greensboro’s portion of the three-year award totals $300,000.
According to the abstract, the project will be “the first to explore and comprehensively characterize the network of relationships among factors that drive instruction (instructor beliefs about learning and teaching, pedagogical content knowledge, classroom practice, and classroom context) and learning (student behaviors, beliefs, and prior knowledge/skills) in a STEM classroom.”
In particular, Dr. Popova and her colleagues will examine teaching and learning around the concept of symmetry in inorganic chemistry courses. Symmetry in this context involves the properties of molecules, and an understanding of the concept is necessary for learning in diverse fields of chemistry, including inorganic, physical, spectroscopy, and quantum chemistry.
The goal of this project is to explore the complex relationship between instructional practice and student learning in the context of chemistry. Many STEM education research studies are designed with the assumption that student learning occurs as a direct result of what happens in the classroom. This assumption is fundamentally naïve, as the relationship between instruction and learning exists within an ecology of factors that not only contextualize this relationship but also potentially mediate it. Reports of how learning environments affect student learning that account for these factors are extremely rare. This project is the first to explore and comprehensively characterize the network of relationships among factors that drive instruction (instructor beliefs about learning and teaching, pedagogical content knowledge, classroom practice, and classroom context) and learning (student behaviors, beliefs, and prior knowledge/skills) in a STEM classroom. We propose to situate this project in inorganic chemistry classes and, more specifically, the topic of symmetry. While most chemistry education research occurs in the general chemistry, organic chemistry, and (to a lesser extent) physical chemistry spaces, inorganic chemistry topics have received comparatively little attention. Symmetry is presumed to be difficult because it requires students to possess strong visuospatial skills and negotiate a landscape of conceptual and procedural knowledge structures. Various methods for teaching symmetry are presented in the literature; however, few (if any) are evidence-based. In fact, little is known regarding how students learn symmetry, develop related knowledge structures, and apply knowledge and skills to solve problems and this project aims to explore these ideas. Thus, this collaborative exploratory research project will address these knowledge gaps by not only characterizing learning environments and student learning outcomes related to symmetry but also postulating connections between various factors that are critical for student learning.