If you walk into one of Stacey Lowery Bretz’s chemistry classes, you might find dozens of students flapping their arms like a bird. Or they could be climbing across a long row of chairs, hoping to find a mate on the other side of the aisle.
No need to worry. They’re just imagining what it’s like to be an atom.
The particle life, it turns out, is quite dynamic. There’s a whole lot of spinning, vibrating, shape-shifting and match-making going on at the atomic level. But you wouldn’t know if you stuck to memorizing equations.
That’s why Bretz, along with her Miami University colleague Ellen Yezierski, are committed to something called embodied cognition — or more specifically, chemistry theater — in undergraduate education. To understand what chemistry is and how it works, you have to connect the macroscopic, like water, to the molecular level. Too many chemistry teachers and students do this by defaulting to the symbolic, say Bretz and Yezierski. Let’s just say that water is two hydrogen atoms linked to one oxygen atom, or H2O, and move on.
That’s like asking students to learn the rules of a foreign language without providing any understanding of what that language represents, the professors say. “When they only experience it at that level,” says Bretz, “they think, why would anybody study this?”
But you can make chemistry exciting if you dive into some of the deeper questions it raises. How do atoms behave? How do molecules form? Is that a static experience? What happens if you have too many, or two few, different elements bouncing around?
Those concepts are inherently fascinating, say the two professors. But they require students to imagine what the world of molecules, atoms, and ions looks and feels like.
To do so, the professors have incorporated embodied cognition into introductory college chemistry classes, which are primarily taken by STEM majors. (Yezierski, who heads Miami’s Center for Teaching Excellence, no longer teaches intro classes but still uses these techniques in her other courses.) Although they have never taught a class together, Bretz and Yezierski are deeply involved in chemistry-education research and frequently collaborate and share materials.
While it’s just a slice of a larger teaching strategy, everything they do is geared toward encouraging students’ curiosity. When they ask students to stand up and demonstrate how a molecule rotates or vibrates, students might start to giggle and think the whole thing is a bit silly. That prompts the professors to say, “See, you’re having fun here,” and talk to them about how hands-on learning helps students grasp abstract ideas.
In one exercise, students come to class wearing different colored shirts to represent different kinds of atoms. Then they are asked to create certain molecules by finding a mate or mates with different colored shirts. Students move back and forth across the room as they try to pair up with the right combination of colors.
“Someone might say: Well, I couldn’t get to people in black and white shirts because they were too far away,” says Bretz. That presents an opportunity to talk about how elements need to collide before turning into another kind of matter.
The professors use other techniques as well. One is to hand out whiteboards where students can draw particle-level pictures. You can learn pretty quickly whether students understand what you’re trying to describe.
Another is to ask the kind of question where students often disagree on the answer. Once the results are in, the professors tell the students that they need to convince each other their answer is right. “It gets so noisy,” says Bretz. But that’s OK. “We haven’t lost control of the classroom. We give control to the students.”
After students have persuaded each other, or not, they are eager to hear whether they were right. “It’s such a cool climate,” says Yezierski. “You have students almost begging you to lecture them.”
These strategies have led to some pretty good results, the professors say. In a common national exam created by the American Chemical Society for undergraduate curricula, their students have performed well above the national average. The mean score is around the 80th percentile. (The national average would be the 50th.)
“But,” says Yezierski, “it also leads to day-to-day wins. We have a blast working with our students.”
Do you have an unconventional way of teaching, like asking your students to move around during one of your classes? Drop me a note at
and I might feature your story in a future newsletter.
Beth McMurtie, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education.