Program helps teacher combine computers, chemistry

Lisa Depies
Jon Obrect, a science teacher at Geneseo High School, has completed two years of a three-year Institute for Chemistry Literacy through Computational Science program that helps rural educators combine chemistry and computers.

Science concepts can be difficult for students to grasp — especially concepts that occur at a microscopic level.

“When students can’t actually see what’s going on, it’s sometimes hard for them to visualize what’s happening,” said Geneseo High School chemistry teacher Jon Obrecht.

To help students better grasp what they’re learning, Obrecht uses various computer programs to teach chemistry. “The students are very computer savvy. They play around with the programs and can figure things out.”

Obrecht has spent the past two summers learning more about chemistry computer programs at the Institute for Chemistry Literacy through Computational Science (ICLCS) held at the University of Illinois campus.

Sponsored by the National Science foundation, ICLCS is a statewide effort designed to strengthen rural high-school teachers’ chemistry curriculum via the use of computer programs.

Obrecht is one of only 100 teachers in the state participating in the program.

“(Guidance counselor) Linda VanDerLeest sent me an e-mail about the grant program. At the time, I? had three days to apply before the grant was due,” Obrecht said.

ICLCS is a three-year program, and ?Obrect was accepted into the first cadre of teachers to participate in the summer sessions.

Having now completed two years of the program, Obrecht will return next summer for the final year.

“In the beginning, I was attending just to better my own content knowledge, but it’s turned into a network of friends,” he said.

Many of the program’s participating teachers are the only chemistry teacher in their respected district. ICLCS allows the teachers to exchange curriculum and lab ideas. Program participants also work with University of Illinois chemistry professors, which has been a benefit, said? Obrecht.

“If students are having difficulties grasping a concept, I can send out an e-mail and ask for suggestions on how to better explain something,” he said. “The feedback I receive is almost instantaneous.”

During the summer sessions, teachers learn about free Web-based computer programs their students can use as chemistry tools. The downloadable programs also are available for students to use at home.

“There are so many things they can do by using the computers. It helps the students better visualize the molecules,” he said.

Using virtual chemistry labs online also helps students learn the names of various lab equipment and helps prevent waste in the lab itself.

When practice labs are conducted using computer programs, students are less likely to waste chemicals when conducting the experiment in the classroom lab.

“Computers will never completely erase lab work, because the labs themselves are too vital, but it does allow the students chances to practice the labs chemical free,” Obrecht said.

At the conclusion of three summers of the ICLCS program, Obrecht will earn nine graduate credit hours in chemistry from the University of Illinois.