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Chemistry professor uses team approach

Chemistry courses don't typically inspire a lot of classroom debate.

But in Tracy Knowles' classes at Blue Grass Community and Technical College, students arguing about their findings is part of the fun — especially when it comes to taking group tests or projects, such as finding out how cheap shampoos compare with expensive salon washes.

Her team-based approach helped Knowles, who teaches chemistry and environmental science courses, earn the 2009 Kentucky professor of the year award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Knowles is just the second BCTC professor to win it. She was recognized with other state winners at a reception last month in Washington, D.C.

"As far as I'm concerned, Tracy got me excited to be in school, which is definitely a hard thing to do," said Whitney Glass, 29, a student from Versailles who wrote one of the letters nominating Knowles for the award.

Knowles, a Tennessee native, has reworked how she runs her classes since hearing presentations several years ago by L. Dee Fink, an Oklahoma-based higher education consultant, and Larry K. Michaelsen, a professor of management at the University of Central Missouri.

Fink's overarching question to the instructors at his talk was: "In five years, what do you really want your students who have taken your course to really be able to do?"

For her students, Knowles said, it's not a question of whether they have memorized Avogadro's number (the number of atoms needed so that the grams of a substance equal its atomic mass), but whether they can solve problems and think critically.

So Knowles' students must demonstrate that through projects. For instance, chemistry students must figure out which brands of ice cream or potato chips would cause a person to gain the most weight in a year or which shampoos have the most foaming action.

The classes' conclusion on the shampoos yielded some helpful, if surprising, results.

"The cheap ones are the same," she said, as if giving away a secret.

Her environmental science students conducted tests for E. coli bacteria in Wolf Run Creek that were presented at a conference in Frankfort in the fall.

And in her classes, students take tests by themselves first, then in groups, which allows them to know how they did on their own tests almost immediately and helps clear up misconceptions they might have with the material.

Here's how it works:

After Knowles collects the individual answer sheets, the students break into teams to compare their work and retake the test collectively.

The teams are given scorecards, similar to lottery scratch-off sheets, to record their answers. If they scratch off the wrong answer, they lose points.

"Sometimes those arguments go on for quite a while," Knowles said. "If I notice all the groups are having trouble with one of the questions, we basically work it out on the board and go over it as a class."

That team-based approach has all but eliminated the traditional "sage on the stage" way of teaching, she said.

"It's not that there's no lecture anymore," she said. "There's just mini-bits of lectures."

Since turning to this approach, her classes' fail rate — those students earning less than a C — has fallen to about 10 percent, while that of most chemistry courses is about 35 percent, Knowles said.

Glass, who is at BCTC to take prerequisites for a doctorate in physical therapy, said her chemistry class with Knowles started with 34 students and ended with 34.

"Tracy adds personal aspects to things," Glass said. "We had a weekly journal due every Sunday about how you feel about what's going on in class. She kept you accountable so you didn't have a chance to disappear."

Results like that helped Knowles and BCTC land a nearly $200,000 grant over two years from the National Science Foundation to bring Fink and Michaelsen to Lexington for workshops for BCTC chemistry and biology instructors and high school science teachers. That will help them restructure BCTC's basic chemistry and biology classes by spring 2011.

Kyle Davenport, one of Knowles' former students, said he wasn't surprised to learn of her teaching award. After all, he said, she was the only one who succeeded in helping him make sense of organic chemistry.

Davenport, now an assistant superintendent at a Bowling Green golf course, said Knowles simplified the material so that even two years out of school, he can understand how to record the chemical breakdowns of substances.

"When you got done, you realized without even knowing it that she had taught you everything you needed to know about it in two days," he said. "She taught you to the point that once you got it, you retained it. That was her biggest gift."