High school students studying chemistry confront a novel
challenge. For most, chemistry is the first subject area in
which they try to systematically understand natural phenomena
they cannot directly observe. Although the material tools
of chemistry investigation--e.g., various solids and liquid
reagents, assortments of test tubes and glassware--populate
students' laboratory experiences in chemistry class, the goal
of chemistry education centers on the molecular phenomena
underlying the manifest phenomena students encounter.
But the very representations on which students must rely in
order to engage with the concepts of the discipline prove
to be difficult for students to use and understand. Chemical
representations, therefore, are both an aid and an impediment
to student understanding.
The goal of the ChemSense project is to help students overcome
their difficulties in understanding chemical concepts by providing
students access to rich representational tools that can fill
a gap in their ability to experience or imagine the world
of molecular entities and reactions. The ChemSense project
is funded by the National
Science Foundation, and our partners include the University
of Michigan and California high schools. Together, we are
developing software and activities to help students investigate
chemical phenomena and express their understanding in a variety
of chemistry representations. Our research documents student
learning, changes in students' representational and discursive
practices, and teacher implementation strategies.
The ChemSense Studio
software offers distinct functionalities that enable students
to create their own representations of chemical phenomena.
The environment allows students to generate drawings, animations,
text, and graphs. Specialized tools within the environment
make it easy to create images of nanoscopic entities and processes.
Students' ability to readily generate representations at the
nanoscopic level helps them to move from simply depicting
surface features of chemical phenomena to representing underlying
phenomena that align with surface features. (See sample
activities designed by our partner teachers scaffold student
use of interconnected forms of visual and discursive representations
to enable students to describe, explain, and argue about the
chemical experiments they are conducting on the lab bench.
The commenting feature of the ChemSense Studio allows students
to add textual annotations to visual representations and provides
a ready means for discussion and commentary by students on
one another's work, thereby further supporting the possibility
for students to collectively arrive at new understandings
of scientific concepts.
In sum, ChemSense tools and pedagogical approaches are intended
to help students traverse the bridge between what they can
see and the unseen, underlying processes that drive chemical
reactions. Our analysis of this learning process focuses on
the role of ChemSense in enabling two important and interrelated
lines of development: chemical understanding and the reflective
use of a variety of representations ("representational