Chemistry Professor© has been a project in the making for nearly twenty years with six years of active development. The author began the program in the late 1980's, videotaping her lectures for students to use as support for their learning throughout the semester. The tapes popularity spread as their effective delivery brought about great success for her students. Within a short amount of time, her tapes were being used throughout the southeastern United States by students enrolled in various college level chemistry courses. High school teachers also found them to be a great reviewing tool in preparation for their own teaching.
With the advent of new technology, Chemistry Professor© has added many weapons to its teaching arsenal. Powerpoint presentations coupled with embedded video, Flash animation, and narration are used to provide a seamless, delivery tool for instruction. Chemistry is a subject that requires a presentation capitalizing on active visual techniques. This is where a textbook fails. Research shows active visual coupled with appropriate narration provides the ultimate learning opportunity, particularly in the physical sciences.
The author has taught chemistry at the college and university level for nearly forty years, winning numerous state and national awards for her teaching. Her primary instruction has been at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida; however her courses were chosen to be used at a number of universities in Sub-Saharan Africa where she simultaneously taught hundreds of students chemistry by distance education (video, web, and satellite) while continuing her classroom instruction. Additionally, she has designed several chemistry courses taken by students all over the United States, course used by several universities in preparing their students for teaching chemistry.
A Smartflix.com editor interviewed Dr. Etheridge regarding her background and teaching. The interview follows:
SmartFlix.com: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Sandra Etheridge: My initial interest was in civil engineering, but the universities in the state where I grew up strongly directed women away from that field to the point of making it a virtually impossible option. My second love was English but my elderly grandparents who reared me made it very clear that I would need to be self-sufficient and I wasn’t sure of what options would be available in English. When I was offered scholarships in chemistry, that certainly seemed to be the way to go.
SmartFlix: From what age did you know you loved chemistry, and how?
Sandra: I took chemistry my senior year in high school and had a terrible time with the first semester, nearly failing the course. But during the second semester the subject just came together and I found it absolutely fascinating. Since I had always loved to tinker with things, taking a broken TV apart when I was 12 and putting it back together so that it worked, trying to figure out what made concrete work the way it did, etc., it just seemed a natural fit. I was convinced I was bent on a science research path.
SmartFlix: What came first for you…the desire to teach, or the desire to learn about chemistry?
Sandra: Although I had scholarships, they didn’t cover nearly all my college expenses, so besides working at the college switchboard, I tutored chemistry and English. Very quickly I determined that there were so many students needing help with chemistry that I didn’t have time for tutoring English anymore. There were a few occasions in which I covered for a chemistry professor who was unable to make a freshman chemistry class and what a ride that was!
When I was offered a fellowship for graduate school to complete a combination masters in teaching chemistry and chemistry, I jumped at the opportunity and in the process turned down another offer as a research assistant in a Ph.D. program at another university. So I was marked. I suppose the answer to your question is chemistry initially, then teaching.
SmartFlix: What are some common misconceptions that often repel people from taking time to learn about this astounding subject?
Sandra: Many people are terrified of chemistry and believe only geniuses can handle the subject. The concept was certainly prevalent when I was in school, to the point that when asked my major by young men I usually said English or social work. I read an article in a leading science magazine recently addressing this issue. The author placed part of the fault squarely in the laps of those of us who teach at the college level, suggesting that because we treat all of our students as if they were planning to major in the subject, we eliminate many students who would be wonderful in related areas, students who may never wish to become research scientists. I think the author was right on target. Chemistry is a dynamic, dramatic, visual, and exciting field; and that is the way it should be taught.
SmartFlix: What kinds of careers do people tend to branch off into after majoring in chemistry?
Sandra: People study chemistry for a vast number of fields ranging from biology, forensic investigation, medicine, all fields of engineering, to geology, pharmaceutical research, agriculture, and on and on.
SmartFlix: Tell us about the benefits of your courses and website.
Sandra: My courses originated nearly thirty years ago when two of my students from the area military base were being sent for temporary assignment elsewhere. Not wanting to lose a semester of study, they asked me if I could give them directed study materials for the rest of the semester. The next day I brought my home video camera to work, drew off two lines on the chalkboard, and proceeded to give those two the remainder of the lectures for the semester. The library copied the videos for them and I thought that was that.
Not so. My other students brought in their blank videos and lined up at the library to have copies made, too. The improvement in grades was remarkable. Why? The students could rewind those lectures and play them again and again. The current videos are several generations removed from those early ones. These were made in the college’s studio where I used at least three cameras: one directed to me, one directed to my graphics page where I can write, etc. and one which is essentially my computer. I can bring a problem on screen, split the screen and work out the problem on the graphics page. I can bring in lab demonstrations for the Introduction to Chemistry course, use models to demonstrate the fine points of molecular geometry in College Chemistry, use the computer animations to show how reactions may actually occur in Organic Chemistry.
But in all of this, I change the pace of the instruction, keep the lessons to 30 minutes, review topics, relate one topic to another, bring up fascinating questions, tell stories, bring in the history of the subject, and have a wonderful time in the process. My students laugh, talk back to the screen, rerun, replay, and learn! I just love it! All the courses except the Organic Chemistry are accompanied by a detailed noteguide which exactly matches the videos. As a result, students are guided as to what to put in their notes, filling in the noteguide as they go. They wind up with a detailed, organized set of notes for review and study.
In the Introduction course and the College Chemistry I, they are given a few exercises and some “quick quizzes” with answers in the back of the book. The videos fit virtually any textbook and certainly don’t have to be viewed in order. But the most important thing is the students get instruction from someone who has taught the subject for 42 years and who is absolutely passionate about teaching chemistry.
SmartFlix: Who was your original target market for the DVDs? What is the segment that now views them the most?
Sandra: Originally the college planned to use these videos for our extensive distance learning program, but students demanded access to the videos so the courses were added to the shelves for checkout. Then the college put the videos on the local public television station for viewing. The World Bank auditioned the videos for the African Virtual University and selected the College Chemistry I and College Chemistry II to be used in Universities in Sub-Saharan Africa where chemistry was needed, but instructors were sparse.
Although they have only been on the market for a few months, I find they are being used in a variety of ways. Students at colleges and universities all over the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom are using them as a way of learning chemistry. But I didn’t know that faculty were going to be using them as a way to refresh, that graduate teaching assistants were using them for the same purpose, that distance education students who had no access to lecturers would find them invaluable, that the home schooled student would find them, too. But it makes sense. Faculty can review privately. Graduate assistants who may have forgotten some critical points can learn it again before they go teach their own classes. Institutions that don’t have their own courses for their distance education students can use these. And, who is going to teach the home school student chemistry?
SmartFlix: What surprised you most about the whole process of producing and selling these DVDs?
Sandra: The thing that surprised me the most about this whole process of producing and selling these DVDs is HOW DO YOU MARKET TO COLLEGE STUDENTS? We’re getting there, but not nearly as quickly as I would like.
SmartFlix: What is your favorite topic within the vast field of chemistry and why?
Sandra: My favorite topic in the whole vast world of chemistry is showing students the whole vast world of chemistry. I absolutely love teaching students.
SmartFlix: What kinds of teaching aids do you use in your DVDs and in classrooms? Which have proven to be the most effective?
Sandra: In the world of education we call it Points of Inquiry, the knack of asking questions that are absolutely intriguing. Another technique is Scaffolding by which we relate one topic to another. Fact is, when we teach something and the students grasps it, that doesn’t guarantee the student will be able to use it in another context. We have to help with this. It’s scaffolding. Further, students of today are not the readers we were so many years ago when I was in school. They are more visual, more auditory, less likely to learn from a textbook. It is necessary to appeal to the way they learn now, not the way I may have learned it.
SmartFlix: Do you also manage the business end of your operation - marketing and selling the DVDs?
Sandra: Yes, I do manage some of the business end and marketing, but my husband is taking over much of that. My son-in-law is a gifted web designer and his help has been invaluable.
SmartFlix: What are the day-to-day challenges of your job?
Sandra: The biggest day-to-day challenges of this job is getting off of the telephone with students and teachers (I do love talking with them) and making the deadlines for these noteguides. The printer is relentless!
SmartFlix: What is your favorite part of your job?
Sandra: My favorite part of my job is teaching people chemistry.
SmartFlix: Thank you, Sandra!
Professor Etheridge received her BS from Limestone College, MAT from Duke University, and Ph.D. from Florida State University. In addition to her work with Chemistry Professor©, she continues to serve as a chemistry education consultant.