Research & Teaching
By Claudia Aguirre-Mendez and Ying-Chih Chen
Nonscience major students represent a significant percentage of the college graduates in our society (Korn, 2015). One essential goal of science education in nonscience major courses is to prepare students to become scientifically literate citizens (Hemraj-Benny & Beckford, 2014). These citizens face increasingly complex questions that require scientific information to make decisions, such as climate change, the policy and strategy for addressing pandemics, and issues related to sustainability. Students need to be prepared to consume scientific information to justify their decisions on important societal issues. To accomplish this goal, they need not only a solid background in science but also critical-thinking skills to be productive and capable citizens (National Science Board, 2006).
However, both the nonscience major students and instructors in nonscience major courses face significant challenges. The literature mentions that students carry negative attitudes toward science into science classrooms (Bauer, 2008) and perceive science courses as a process of memorizing facts (Yang, 2010). They do not see the connections between scientific concepts and their careers. Nonscience majors do not believe they will apply what they learn from the science course to their lives or future careers (Gill, 2011). These students usually lack the motivation and engagement of taking science courses and learning science concepts, especially when exclusively being lectured to for an entire course (Fox & Hackerman, 2003; Fuller, 2017; Glynn et al., 2011; ). Many instructors who teach science to nonscience majors are reluctant to implement innovative teaching approaches in their class due to the high levels of uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of new approaches. Instructors may feel that students will not favor new approaches, which may impact their course evaluation.
Many researchers have been working on instructional strategies, approaches, and solutions to counteract the lack of engagement in nonscience major introductory courses. For example, studies in biology education have focused on redesigning courses to include approaches such as problem-based learning and service-learning in their course assignments (Tawfik et al., 2014). In the area of environmental health, Jin and Bierma (2013) used an approach called Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) to improve students’ engagement and scientific literacy. In chemical education, Choi et al. (2013) conducted writing-to-learn activities to help students reflect on what they learned from their laboratory experiences. Most of these studies attempted to prompt students’ learning outcomes and enable students to develop scientific literacy skills.
Similarly, this study used argumentative writing prompts to engage nonscience majors in learning science content and advance their scientific literacy skills. We had three goals when designing the courses for nonscience majors. The first goal was to facilitate students’ connection between the subject and their real-life applications (Miles & Bachman, 2009; Jin & Bierma, 2013; Logan & Rumbaugh, 2012; Park, 2018). The second goal was to prepare students to learn and apply the practice of science through mini-research projects (Neuman & Harmon, 2019). The third goal was to engage students in literacy practice by crafting argumentative writing assignments (Bozzone & Doyle, 2017; Chen, 2019; Moon et al., 2019). All of these goals aim to not only promote engagement with less memorization of the subject but also prepare students to be scientifically literate.
In this article, we present an instructional model to be implemented in a general chemistry class designed for nonscience majors. The model involves argumentative writing assignments aligned with topics of the class curriculum (conversion factors, atomic structure, gas laws, and diffusion). Although there has been an increased propensity to include argumentation in K–16 education, college students have not been exposed to the concept of argumentation as an important way to learn science (Çetin & Eymur, 2017; Choi et al., 2013; Finkenstaedt-Quinn et al., 2017). With this instructional model, we fulfilled all three goals by using argumentative writing assignments. Argumentation is a core practice for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that rarely happens in chemistry classrooms, especially for nonscience majors. In addition to argumentative writing prompts, we used online interactive simulations (Concord Consortium, n.d.; PhET, n.d.) to engage students in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data as evidence to support claims.
The integration of argumentative writing and online interactive simulations might help students visualize invisible science properties, particularly in chemistry (Pallant et al., 2018; Trate et al., 2019). For example, in the general chemistry curriculum for the nonscience major in this study, there are several topics that students need to learn from the microscopic and particle view in order to understand chemistry concepts such as atomic structure and subatomic particles, as well as the behavior of gas particles and molecular mass concerning its diffusion rate.
The implementation of the writing prompts took place at a state university in the Midwest in a general chemistry class for nonscience majors. Pre-nursing students made up 75% of the class, while the other 25% of students were in fields such as music, business, and recreation, among others. This class fulfills a general education physical sciences requirement. The enrollment of the class varies from spring to fall semesters. During the spring semester, the larger enrollment (90 students) is split into two sections. The participants in this study consisted of 163 students from four sections of the general chemistry course between spring 2017 and spring 2018; 146 of the students were female and 17 were male. All courses were taught by the same instructor, who is also one of the authors of this article. Although the total number of participants in this study was 163, only 29 were involved in this current study that aimed to understand students’ perspectives regarding argumentative writing used in the course. Our initial study that involved 163 participants found that students significantly improved their conceptual understandings of chemistry and epistemic understanding of argumentative writing (Aguirre-Mendez et al., 2020). Building on the positive results, we decided to explore how students perceived the role of argumentative writing in the development of their conceptual understanding of chemistry and their future careers. Therefore, we selected the general chemistry class, which is offered every semester; this particular offering took place in spring 2018 and had 35 students.
The instructor introduced these assignments to the students following a structured approach that involved a 15-minute discussion of the differences between scientific argumentation and arguing and a 15-minute explanation of the components of an argument and the relationship between them (Chen & Steenhoek 2014). After the instructor’s lecture, students were directed to use free interactive simulation sites such as PhET or Concord Consortium to address a series of questions.
An open-ended questionnaire was designed and implemented to explore students’ perspectives regarding the connection between the argumentative writing activities and the improvement of their conceptual understanding of the topics, elements of arguments, and the connections between arguments and their careers. The questionnaire was administered at the end of the semester for the last cohort (spring 2018). We received responses from 29 out of 35 students (83%).
Argumentative writing prompts were designed following the framework suggested by Chen and Steenhoek (2014; see Figure 1). This framework consists of four components: big idea, question, claim, and evidence (Chen, Mineweaser, et al., 2018). We also used this framework to pursue the three goals mentioned previously. To explain how we integrate the three goals with the framework shown in Figure 1, we used the unit of Gay-Lussac’s law as an example to explain how we used the assignments in the classrooms. Students were able to engage in several scientific practices identified by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013), such as analyzing and interpreting data, engaging in an argument for evidence, developing and using models, and constructing explanations.
In this unit on Gay-Lussac’s law, students are expected to understand the kinetic molecular theory of gases and the relationship among several variables, such as pressure, volume, temperature, and number of moles. Learning the concepts of gas laws is intended to support students’ understanding of the laws and their connections and applications to health contexts. Students are expected to make the connections to practices they will enact in their future careers, such as measuring blood pressure and understanding breathing and respiratory therapy, among other clinical aspects that involve gases.
The first goal of the instructional model is to connect the core concepts to students’ lives. One way to achieve the goal is to problematize a phenomenon occurring in students’ everyday lives. Through problematizing of the phenomenon, students can see how the concepts connect to their lives and become motivated to learn the concepts (Chen, 2020). This connection increases students’ interest and uncertainty and engages them in discussion of phenomena in relation to their prior experiences and knowledge (Chen, Benus, & Hernandez, 2019). For example, the instructor started the class by showing students a picture of a flat tire (as shown in Figure 2) and asked the following questions: Why did this tire became flat in hot weather? What is inside a tire? What specific properties of a gas can describe this phenomenon? Students answered that tires contain air and air is a homogeneous mixture of gases. (Students were integrating previous knowledge they learned about matter and properties of gases.) Students also responded that, in hot weather, temperature and pressure are the variables that explain the phenomenon. After that discussion, students were introduced to the main idea and equation of Gay-Lussac’s law. In this unit, the instructor covered several laws, and students had the opportunity to discuss and use formulas to solve mathematical problems. The next week, students had to complete their argumentative assignment, in which they were asked to click a link that took them to an interactive model from the Concord Consortium (https://concord.org/). The Concord Consortium is an organization that helps integrate technology into STEM learning. This assignment offered students the opportunity to use an interactive model to collect, analyze, and explore data to determine which gas law explained the phenomena they observed (see Figure 3). Students were also asked about a real-life application that demonstrates this specific gas law. Through their search of resources, students were able to find an example that explains what happens when firing a bullet or heating a closed aerosol can, among other examples.
The argumentative writing assignments are mini-research projects in which students collect quantitative data. Students must select dependent variables, independent variables, controlled variables, and estimated numbers for volume, pressure, and temperature. Students use and develop models, analyze the data, and engage in an argument based on the evidence. The final product is a digital file that students upload to a learning management platform. Through that platform, the instructor can provide immediate feedback for students.
In this assignment, students used models and created an explanatory graph in Microsoft Excel using the data collected from the Concord Consortium simulation. The next stage also involved some different argumentative components. The guiding question was “How does the temperature affect the pressure exerted by a gas?” Students once again needed to provide their initial claim and scientific evidence in support of their claim in their argument. The assignment required students to answer a question related to the specific content of the gas law, such as which law explains the relationship between temperature and pressure. The prompt guided students to explain how the interactive simulation was useful and to look for an example from their daily experiences in which Gay-Lussac’s law has an application (How did the model help you understand the phenomena? What is a real-life application that demonstrates this specific gas law?). Finally, we asked a question designed to investigate students’ self-reflection on their learning: What did you learn from this writing activity? Figure 4 provides a short version of a student’s high-quality writing sample. The detailed evaluation and criteria of the writing prompts can be found in Aguirre-Mendez et al. (2020).
The questionnaire included three open-ended questions designed to explore students’ experience with the intervention:
These questions were developed based on the three areas that involve learning science (Millar & Osborne, 1998): the acquisition of scientific knowledge, the application of knowledge to new contexts and situations, and the use of an understanding of scientific practices.
All digital versions of the questionnaires were imported to Nvivo Plus 11 for analysis. The data were analyzed following the guiding themes: conceptual understanding, understanding of argument, and the argument’s relevance to the students’ future careers. We used the constant comparative method (Creswell, 2014) to compare and contrast students’ responses. Several codes emerged based on the definition of each theme (see Tables 1 through 3).
In Table 1, we present the codes and examples from students’ perspectives about how helpful the activities were regarding learning the selected concepts. Most of the students agreed that the writing assignments clarified their conceptual understanding primarily via the use of the simulation and visualization representations (59% of the students). Students mainly expressed that the writing assignments helped them understand the concepts more completely. The simulations also helped students visualize abstract models (gas particles, molecular particle, subatomic particles) and concepts through operating interactive online simulations. Students perceived the argumentative writing assignments as a tool to foster their critical thinking, elaborate on an explanation of the concepts, and develop their conclusions through data interpretation.
Students also perceived that engaging in argumentative writing helped them better understand how to write scientific arguments (38%). They expressed that the assignments required specific characteristics that made them think “more persuasively.” Students indicated that the writing assignments were a new experience for them, so they did not know the components of argumentation before they did these activities in the chemistry course. From their responses, students were able to define the meanings of claim, evidence, and data. They also expressed that they were able to use the gained understanding of claim, evidence, and data to elaborate on each chemistry topic. Table 2 presents the codebook for this theme and examples.
One interesting finding from students’ perspectives was the relevance they found between the writing samples and their future career as nurses. Forty-five percent of students considered the argumentative writing assignments as a tool that supported their communication skills to explain diagnosis and treatment to future patients. Other non-nursing students believed that “any form of writing” is beneficial for improving their communication abilities, so it is important to engage in argumentation activities for students pursuing any career because these activities allow students to observe, explain, and use data for creating evidence about the world around them. Table 3 shows the codes and examples for this theme.
Engaging students in argumentative writing in introductory courses for nonscience majors is not only possible but well received by students. In the beginning, they might not favor this instructional strategy due to the cognitive demands involved (Klein & Boscolo, 2016). However, our findings indicate (specifically from students’ responses on the questionnaires) that the design is well received when students had more opportunities to engage in the writing activities. In addition, the online simulation allowed them to understand complex concepts and visualize abstract structures. Some of the challenges of learning chemistry are related to invisible properties and, particularly in chemistry, students facing the issues of scale (Trate et al., 2019).
Argumentative writing prompts combined with online simulation can be used in introductory science courses for nonscience majors in which students may not have opportunities to get into the lab to explore the practices of science. Through the argumentative writing prompts and online simulation, students can collect data, analyze data to shape evidence and claims, create models to explain their conceptual understanding, and write arguments based on scientific evidence. These experiences prepare nonscience major students for developing critical-thinking skills and their abilities to make scientific decisions.
In this article, we present an argumentative writing prompt model used to promote students’ engagement and active learning in an introductory chemistry course. The findings from students’ questionnaires indicated that students valued these writing activities as part of their chemistry curriculum. The activities described can be used as a model for any other science content courses. We suggest these activities be aligned with the course content curriculum so students have alternative ways to expand their scientific knowledge and make sense of scientific practice. We continue to explore the power of writing and argumentation as critical learning tools for promoting scientific literacy for nonscience majors in ways that give instructors and students the motivation and disposition to pursue these activities in their classrooms.
Claudia Aguirre-Mendez (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor in the Department of Physical Sciences at Emporia State University, and Ying-Chih Chen is an associate professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.
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