Virtual lab at Carnegie Mellon wins SPORE prize

Yaron grew up in Scranton, Pa., and during high school, he worked for a time for a carnival. But the hours were long and dull and he felt he didn’t fit in, and that motivated him to find a career that would be fun and interesting. But he could have been one of the students who missed the allure of science if he hadn’t watched a PBS television series about Albert Einstein that, he says, made physics seem really cool and exciting.

Then wanting to major in physics, he ended up at Wilkes University, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the offerings in chemistry were stronger.

Hired in computational chemistry by Carnegie Mellon, Yaron is doing the modeling for an intriguing and timely technology: the development of paint that can convert solar energy into electricity. He also teaches one course per semester, as well as constantly updating the ChemCollective, which was first released under another name in 1999.

The idea behind the software and website was to add to the textbook problems that are inevitably assigned to beginning chemistry students as homework and therefore to engage them in problem-solving that would more closely resemble the real-world activities of chemists.

Yaron looked at the usual way in which introductory chemistry was taught and concluded that little of it would allow a student to understand an article about chemistry in Scientific American or the New York Times science pages, or even the descriptions of chemistry work that had won Nobel Prizes. He thought introductory chemistry education should be restructured, so students would experience how chemists explain things, how they build things, how they analyze what’s inside things, he says.

With the ChemCollectives Virtual Lab, there was a freedom for students to take a given question, design an experiment, and carry it out. The problem with learning chemistry from a textbook is that many of the concepts presented are abstract and difficult for students to connect to real-world experiences, says Melissa McCartney, an editorial fellow at Science. The ChemCollective aims to enhance chemistry education by providing online materials that allow students to use the facts and equations found in their textbooks in ways that resemble the conduct of practicing chemists, making the design and interpretation of experiments an integral part of learning chemistry.

Because the ChemCollective software is distributed for free, it’s hard to quantify how much it is used. However, the associated website is always being used, Yaron says. Last year, the Virtual Lab was operated more than 100,000 times from the web site and downloaded more than 25,000 times. Furthermore, homework that included the ChemCollective was extremely effective as a teaching tool, according to testing.