Social Networking as a Platform for Role-Playing Scientific Case

Social Networking as a Platform for Role-Playing Scientific Case...

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Social Networking as a Platform for Role-Playing Scientific Case Studies Andrea M. Geyer* Department of Chemistry, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46808, United States S Supporting Information *

ABSTRACT: This work discusses the design and implementation of two online case studies in a face-to-face general chemistry course. The case studies were integrated into the course to emphasize the need for science literacy in general society, to enhance critical thinking, to introduce database searching, and to improve primary literature reading skills. An online social networking platform was chosen to take advantage of commonly used modes of conversation in the young adult population. Facebook was selected as the case study platform because of its functionality, popularity, and group capabilities. Details on the execution of the case studies on Facebook and corresponding student feedback are included. KEYWORDS: Problem Solving/Decision Making, First-Year Undergraduate/General, Interdisciplinary/Multidisciplinary, Internet/Web-Based Learning, Enrichment/Review Materials, Nonmajor Courses

INTRODUCTION Science teachers have increasingly used case studies since 1990 because they enhance student participation, increase core content retention, and help students to develop critical thinking skills.1,2 The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) Web site contains an extensive scientific case study archive with a broad range of implementation methods, such as role-play, debate, public hearing, and trials.3 Some of these case studies can be used as homework or on exams.4 Many of the cases are designed as face-to-face interactions in a classroom.3 A few examples of case study pedagogies in the online environment through social media are found in the field of nursing.5,6 I have been unable to find evidence of a similar approach being employed in chemistry. This work presents the design and implementation of two case studies in a general chemistry course using a social networking platform.

ages of 18 and 29 years use social networks, these platforms were primarily considered for this study. Ultimately, Facebook was selected for the case study because 89% of social network users report having a Facebook account.9 As a result, the student population would require little to no training on how to use this platform. The case studies are designed for a general chemistry course; however, they could be implemented readily in an upper-level course, such as environmental chemistry. They are structured to appeal to a broad range of science majors because fewer than 1 in 20 of the students in my general chemistry course is a chemistry major. Groups of approximately 35 students result in deep discussions that are easy to follow. Multiple case studies could be run simultaneously or staggered throughout the term for courses with more than 40 students. For smaller courses, the breadth of the studies could be limited. A role-playing format was selected for the case studies. This format allows the students to experience the true “messy” nature of scientific inquiry. That is to show that the scientific method is not nearly as pristine as we tend to convey it. A variety of character identities are included to bring a broad range of perspectives to the case study discussion. This range of identities encourages students to learn how to develop and support arguments that align with their characters. The case studies focus on addressing current unresolved problems in the sciences. The topics are selected to introduce elements of controversy, ethics, and science focused on two

CASE STUDY OVERVIEW Several online platforms for conducting the case studies were considered at the outset of this project, including Blackboard, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest. A course management system such as Blackboard would have provided the basic tools for conducting the case study discussions. However, I wanted to use a platform that the students would access on a regular basis outside of academia. This would help the case study discussion feel genuine instead of feeling like another course requirement. In addition, the use of social media has been shown to increase student engagement in educationally relevant ways.7,8 Because 92% of Internet users between the © 2014 American Chemical Society and Division of Chemical Education, Inc.

Published: February 10, 2014 364 | J. Chem. Educ. 2014, 91, 364−367

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recently published journal articles.10,11 The case studies are structured to achieve the following learning outcomes (LO): 1. Synthesizing a sound, supported argument that is appropriate to the case study character identity 2. Critically discussing a hot topic in science via Facebook using appropriate resources to support the arguments 3. Understanding that science literacy among the general public is important

study pedagogy iterations showed that students often wait until the Facebook discussion begins before they complete the background research, causing frustration with the workload and leading to poorly developed discussions. The students are instead given the assignment for it the first week of class during the library database session and have a month to complete the essay. This gives the students ample time to research their character, receive journal articles through interlibrary loan, and ask general questions. After establishing their characters, the students prepare their social network accounts for the discussion (LO 2). If a student does not have a Facebook account, he or she must create one to participate in the study. Some students choose to establish a “dummy” Facebook account because they would prefer to keep their identities anonymous during the case study. This is especially true when they are playing a character role that does not reflect their personal opinions. Please note that Facebook does not support the creation of multiple accounts, as it is a violation of their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.13 Once the students have established their accounts, they join a private group that the group administrator (instructor) has created within Facebook. Private groups allow the Facebook group administrator to determine group membership, which prevents nongroup members from participating in and viewing the discussion. A private group was established because the general public would not be aware that students’ roles might not align with their personal perspectives. Other case study designs may be conducive to closed or public group settings, permitting the general public to view or participate in the discussion, respectively. As a member of the group, the students cannot view each other’s private personal profile; only the conversation between the group members may be viewed. The student discussions begin once the headline is posted on Facebook (LO 2). Several discussion guidelines are implemented to ensure that a conversation is taking place. In the absence of these guidelines, students could post minimal comment numbers, with each comment starting a new thread, thus avoiding critical discussion or reflection. A minimum of 10 substantial comments is required from each student; these are broadly defined to maximize the students’ flexibility and creativity. Examples of substantial comments include, but are not limited to, comments that create a turning point in the discussion, introduce an important topic or issue, clearly explain a scientific process or concept, or critically analyze a situation. All substantial comments must include a citation and a summary of the issue presented in the reference. Requiring detailed responses avoids students’ posting references and saying, “read this for more info [sic]” instead of discussing the relevance of the work. At least half of each student’s substantial comments must be responses to encourage discussion, and half of all comments must be posted by the case study’s midpoint. I maintain a document on Blackboard that is updated nightly so the students can track their discussion points. It is less burdensome for me to read 30−40 comments a night, rather than read 350 comments on one day for a class of 35. For larger classes, running staggered case studies makes the workload more reasonable for an instructor without teaching assistants. The discussion is monitored by the instructor to make sure that it is not becoming too heated or is moving off-topic. Only once did I have to send a message to a student to inform him that his comments were inappropriate. The instructor may post questions or comments to direct the conversation (especially if it is going astray) or create a new line of thought. For example,

CASE STUDY IMPLEMENTATION Information in these case studies is delivered in a piecewise manner to provide structure and avoid overwhelming the students.12 The students are first given a summary of the purpose and implementation process of the case studies, which can be found in the Supporting Information. This document articulates the structure, learning objectives, and submission deadlines of assessment artifacts. It also introduces the central theme of the case study, an unresolved scientific issue, through these fictional headlines: 1. Oral Contraceptive Contamination of Waters Is Playing a Significant Role in the Recent Increase in Examples of Intersex Fish and Organisms 2. Responses to “Toxic Toys Crisis” Have Been Reactive and Piecemeal: Insufficient To Ensure Safety of Toys and Other Children’s Products The students are then given a list of potential roles. A description of each character’s perception of the headline is included. Characters’ educational levels and employment status vary, bringing diverse perspectives to the discussion. For instance, science literacy importance (LO 3) is revealed by including community members unfamiliar with science in the activity. Characters with similar storylines could be removed in a smaller class without greatly impacting the study scope. Students select characters and are given more in-depth profiles and short lists of pertinent references (see Supporting Information). The references provide a storyline, but not the complete details of the role. The students need to find additional materials to fully develop and support their characters’ perception of the headline. They must account for their characters’ educational backgrounds and professions, because that will dictate the types of references that best support their characters’ perspectives. For instance, some characters will use peer-reviewed journal articles to support their position, while others are more likely to cite a blog. Because the class has ∼40% first-year students, a class session is held with a librarian to introduce database searching techniques and source evaluation. A brief discussion on reading journal articles is presented in this session and reinforced in a laboratory activity. In this activity, the students are asked to evaluate an article that contains portions that any scientist can comprehend, and other portions that require discipline-specific knowledge. We then discuss how to find valuable information from such an article with the students’ current knowledge. The students are now equipped with the background needed to create a character stance essay (LO 1). This is a two-page essay that presents the character’s perception of the headline using at least five references. This essay is included in the case study to ensure that the students have completed the background research on their character prior to beginning the Facebook discussion. The essay, which the students have not shared with each other, then serves as a source of materials for the Facebook discussion. This is important because earlier case 365 | J. Chem. Educ. 2014, 91, 364−367

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Figure 1. Intersex fish case study discussion excerpt.

the conversation from the intersex fish case study about polarity and solubility shown in Figure 1 was prompted by me. The level of participation in the students’ conversation is entirely up to the instructor and can be dependent on the students’ level of independent thinking, creativity, and ability to stay within the scope of the discussion. The discussion occurs over 10 days, which appeals to the students because it gives them the opportunity to reflect on the conversation without the pressure to immediately react as they would face-to-face. The length of the discussion could readily be shortened, if desired. Each student is required to write a reflection paper after the online discussion that provides details about the student’s personal stance on the problem and includes a proposal for scientific study and action. This allows students to fully reflect on the experience and move beyond playing a role.

Figure 2. Class distribution of comfort (agreed or strongly agreed) in case study implementation methods.

CASE STUDY EVALUATION After the case study, 53 students were asked a series of questions with the following possible responses: strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, and strongly agree. From those questions, 81% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they are comfortable with using case study methods focused on chemistry in the headlines via a social network. Only 60% reported being comfortable in a face-to-face discussion. A comparison of these two populations revealed a 57% overlap in comfort with both styles of case study instruction, as highlighted in Figure 2. In other words, only

3% of students reported a loss in comfort when completing a case study via a social network rather than face-to-face. Overall, 74% of the students preferred performing a case study on a social network relative to a face-to-face discussion. When asked whether these case studies should be repeated in the future, 88% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they should be repeated in this format. Many students were surprised by the case study, as reflected in these comments: I absolutely loved the case study. At f irst I thought it was going to be tedious and boring but once I started it I was

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editorial advice. I would like to thank the reviewers whose comments resulted in the improvement of this manuscript.

hooked. The case study helped me not only understand the importance of chemistry but also enjoy it. I thought the case study was fun and one of the most enjoyable assignments I’ve done in a long time. I was completely consumed by the case study! I loved and hated it passionately. Guess when you think about it chemistry is a big part of our lives and we do not even realize it. In a class that has a majority of the students enrolled just to fulfill a requirement, the excitement and passion that is generated from this activity is worth running the case study. Furthermore, evidence of achieving the course learning objectives was found through students’ performance on character stance papers, discussion entries, reflections, and exam questions. Over 80% of the class received a B or higher on the character stance essay, which was evaluated on content, appropriateness of reference material, and citation style. An average score of a B− was earned for the discussion entries, with points awarded as described previously. The reflection essays (average score of a B+) included discussions on the need to educate the general public about scientific subjects. The essays also showed growth in realizing how media and other nonscientific sources can be biased. Realization of the bias that media can introduce was further demonstrated by the students’ average score of a B when evaluating the appropriateness of a resource on their final exam.

(1) Herreid, C. F. ConfChem Conference on Case-Based Studies in Chemical Education: The Future of Case Study Teaching in Science. J. Chem. Educ. 2013, 90 (2), 256−257. (2) Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N. A.; Maier, K.; Herreid, C. F. Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Case Studies. J. Coll. Sci. Teach. 2007, 37 (1), 34−38. (3) National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. http://; accessed Jan 2014. (4) Cornely, K. ConfChem Conference on Case-Based Studies in Chemical Education: The Use of Case Studies in an Introductory Biochemistry Course. J. Chem. Educ. 2013, 90 (2), 258−259. (5) Tippin, S.; Arnold, L. Social Networks: Bringing a High-Fidelity Simulator to Life on Facebook. Nurs. Educ. 2012, 37 (4), 148−149. (6) Skiba, D. Nursing Education 2.0: Social Networking and the WOTY. Nurs. Educ. Perspect. 2010, 31 (1), 44−46. (7) Junco, R.; Helberger, G.; Loken, E. The Effect of Twitter on College Student Engagement and Grades. J. Comput. Assist. Learn. 2011, 27 (2), 119−132. (8) Manca, S.; Ranieri, M. Is It a Tool Suitable for Learning? A Critical Review of the Literature on Facebook as a TechnologyEnhanced Learning Environment. J. Comput. Assist. Learn. 2013, 29, 487−504. (9) Duggan, M.; Brenner, J. The Demographics of Social Media Users2012. Pew Internet and American Life Project. http://; accessed Jan 2014. (10) Wise, A.; O’Brien, K.; Woodruff, T. Are Oral Contraceptives a Significant Contributor to the Estrogenicity of Drinking Water? Environ. Sci. Technol. 2011, 45, 51−60. (11) Becker, M.; Edwards, S.; Massey, R. I. Toxic Chemicals in Toys and Children’s Products: Limitations of Current Responses and Recommendations for Government and Industry. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2010, 44, 7986−7991. (12) Herreid, C. F. The Interrupted Case Method. J. Coll. Sci. Teach. 2005, 35 (2), 4−5. (13) Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. https://www.; accessed Jan 2014. (14) Taylor, A. T. S. ConfChem Conference on Case-Based Studies in Chemical Education: One Story, Different ClassesUsing the Same Case Study for Different Levels of Chemistry Students. J. Chem. Educ. 2013, 90 (2), 266−267. (15) Vazquez, A. V.; McLoughlin, K.; Sabbagh, M.; Runkle, A. C.; Simon, J.; Coppola, B. P.; Pazicni, S. Writing-To-Teach: A New Pedagogical Approach To Elicit Explanative Writing from Undergraduate Chemistry Students. J. Chem. Educ. 2012, 89, 1025−1031.

FUTURE WORK These case studies could be implemented in courses at the 100−400 level.14 Future work will include administering the case studies as a multilevel conversation, with upper-level students discussing and explaining chemistry pertinent to their course to the lower-level students. The general chemistry students are likely to bring a broader range of discussion elements from nonchemistry disciplines to the table than the chemistry majors. Together, the students gain insight that is not achieved in a conversation only among students at the same level of chemistry. In addition, it has been shown that students who prepare to teach their peers consistently outperform other students because they must synthesize the information into something meaningful before they can convey it.15 As a result, both groups of students would benefit from this interaction. In addition, upper-level chemistry students can assist in case study design to incorporate current hot topics, such as the potential hazards of brominated flame-retardants.



S Supporting Information *

Copies of the handouts, including the case study summary and character profiles. This material is available via the Internet at


Corresponding Author

*E-mail: [email protected] Notes

The authors declare no competing financial interest.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank Warren Pryor and the University of Saint Francis Experimental Design and Research Methods course for 367 | J. Chem. Educ. 2014, 91, 364−367