COLLEGE STATION, Sept. 16, 2013 – Politicians' calls for cheaper university degrees intrigued Texas A&M University chemist Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt.
"A greater focus on online virtual learning is one way to make degrees less costly," said Keeney-Kennicutt, an assistant instructional professor in the Department of Chemistry. "The key question is: Can students get at least the same quality of chemistry education in a virtual world as they can in a laboratory?"
She is exploring that premise as the co-principal investigator for a three-year $200,000 National Science Foundation grant in collaboration with Kurt Winkelmann, a chemist at the Florida Institute of Technology and principal investigator for the effort.
You can often find Keeney-Kennicutt in her cluttered office in the Heldenfels Building at the back of a computer lab where first-year chemistry students visit for help. You also could find her standing on the corner of 12th Man Island wearing a maroon t-shirt because the weather there is always picturesque. It's called Second Life, a virtual world in which Texas A&M has invested.
In this realm, students can interact with fellow students and their teachers, take quizzes, watch videos and walk around three-dimensional cyber molecules to get an understanding of their structure in a way that a textbook can't provide.
Roughly 100 students in Chemistry 112 – second-semester general chemistry lab – are performing two experiments each semester for two years in the virtual lab building, Heldenfels II, on nearby Chemistry World Island using super-sized equipment to make it easier to work with as part of the study. Meanwhile, other students are doing the same work in a real laboratory as the control group. The researchers will gauge the students' knowledge of the course material in addition to their attitudes toward learning chemistry.
A secondary goal of the grant is to develop best practices for online chemistry learning in virtual worlds. Some learning institutions, such as cash-strapped high schools, don't have the resources of a university laboratory, so the researchers hope to help educators create better online chemistry curriculum, Keeney-Kennicutt said.
Keeney-Kennicutt has been working in Second Life for almost five years. In her experience, students are nearly evenly split about it. Many find the three-dimensional renderings of molecules helpful, and she found in a 2011 study that students who used Second Life better grasped the correct bond angles of molecules, an important concept for chemists. But other students expressed frustration with the amount of time it takes to learn how to navigate the digital world ("I'm having enough trouble with my first life!" is a line Keeney-Kennicutt hears often).
"You might think most students are very savvy with online systems, but they're not," she said. "They do their phones and texting and social media, but when it comes to actually working in another medium and computer system, it's hard for them. I want to make the program easier to navigate so that students' time is focused on learning chemistry, not the digital world."
Turning new students on to chemistry is a passion for Keeney-Kennicutt, who in 2009 became Texas A&M's first non-tenured faculty member to be named for a Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence Award, the university's top teaching honor. In addition to several other key teaching awards, she has received the Texas A&M Association of Former Students Distinguished Achievement Award for Teaching at both the university and college levels.
Keeney-Kennicutt, who is associate director of the First Year Chemistry Program, joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1984 after earning her doctorate from the university in chemical oceanography.