Chemistry: Exploring Students’ Understanding of the Relationship Between Acid-Base Conjugate Pairs and Their Relative Strength

Title: Exploring Students’ Understanding of the Relationship Between Acid-Base Conjugate Pairs and Their Relative Strength
Authors: Melissa W. Anderson, Nadia Carmosini, Katherine Friesen, and Yevgeniya Turov; Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse
Discipline/Field: Chemistry and Biochemistry
Submission Date: June 2013

Abstract: During our time working with students in CHM 104 [General Chemistry II], we have observed that concepts related to acid-base equilibrium are particularly challenging for students. Even after a significant amount of lecture and laboratory instruction, students still appear to have only a superficial understanding of the topic at the completion of the course. Therefore, the main goal of this study was to improve students’ understanding of the relationships between acids and bases and their conjugates, one of the most fundamental aspects of acid-base chemistry. This goal was approached by modifying the first lab experiment to deal with acid-base chemistry (Experiment #5). Students typically arrive to a lab period having skimmed the experiment procedure at best. Therefore, the instructor spends a significant amount of instruction time (~45 min) discussing the theory behind the experiment, as well as practical aspects of the lab. By removing the bulk of the pre-lab instruction out of the set experiment time (3 hours), and also asking students to complete work before they attended the lab, we hoped to focus their attention to the outcomes of the experiment having come to lab more prepared than in the past. Through this lesson study we found the modifications made to the experiment were useful in allowing the students to demonstrate their proficiency with equation writing skills, and also reinforced their understanding of many of the differences between acids and bases. However, common misunderstandings surrounding pKa, pKb, and pH we not fully addressed and still need some attention.

Lesson Study in Chemistry: Exploring Students’ Understanding of the Relationship Between Acid-Base Conjugate Pairs and Their Relative Strength (Full Report)

Physics and Biology: Helping students understand their ‘connections’

Topic: Helping students understand ‘connections’ between physics and biology
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Physics, Biology
Authors: Shusaku Horibe, Bret Underwood, Peter Timbie, University of Wisconsin – Madison.
Submission Date: June 17, 2008

Executive Summary: The goal of the lesson is for students to develop an understanding of how physics is connected to biology through the building of physics models of biological phenomena.

We developed three versions of the lesson, evaluating Versions 1 and 2 and making changes based on those evaluations. In Version 1 students engaged in model building activities and were asked to develop physics-based models for a variety of biological and physiological facts. In Version 2 significant modifications were made to address difficulties students had in meeting the learning goals of Version 1. In particular, the number of different biological facts students were asked to model was reduced significantly, and more attention was paid to developing students’ model building skills. Only minor modifications were made in Version 3 to help provide more feedback and a clearer framework for model building to students.

We found that students suffered from several difficulties that prevented them from achieving the learning goals: a lack of conceptual understanding; underdeveloped models; and a lack of reflection on the models that they built. The revisions in the lesson were designed to address these difficulties, resulting in a lesson, which provides ample opportunities for feedback to students on the model building process and how it helps to make connections between physics and biology

Links related to the Lesson:

Links related to the Study:

Chemistry and Physics: Capstone Lab in Rocketry Design

Title: Capstone Lab in Rocket Design
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Chemistry, Physics
Authors: Douglas Weittenhiller, Robert Koch, University of Wisconsin – Baraboo/Sauk County
Submission Date: August 17, 2007

General Physics l & ll is the calculus based Physics course taught at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County. This course presents the basic concepts of physics as they apply to mechanics, heat, wave motion, sound, thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism, light and nuclear physics.  It consists of lectures, discussion, and labs.  The lectures and discussions emphasize conceptual understanding as well as problem solving.  The labs use a hands-on, activity-based approach to learning physics concepts.  This course is designed for students whose program requires 1 year of physics or those who plan to take further courses in physics.  This project would allow the students to utilize their knowledge of mechanics and motion to design an aerodynamic rocket body to house a chemical motor and to calculate it’s max. altitude theoretically and compare the value to an experimental one.

General Chemistry l & ll is a one-year course in college chemistry.  It consists of lectures, discussion, and labs.  This course is designed for students whose program requires 1 year of chemistry or those who plan to take further courses in chemistry. This project would allow the students to utilize their knowledge of chemistry to fabricate a safe chemical motor.

Summary: The Physics students never did get to work with the Chemistry students as a team; however, they each individually designed a model rocket body to house a chemical motor propellant.  We also had (3) lectures/discussions pertaining to rockets. The 1st one was discussing the physics behind rockets- more in depth than the textbook material.  The 2nd one was an open discussion on how to calculate the max. altitude of a rocket theoretically and group work solving a sample problem similar to how we would do it during the lesson study. The 3rd meeting was a hands-on experiment launching a toy model rocket (no motor included) and then we used geometrical methods to determine the actual altitude of the rocket.

Chemistry and Physics Lesson Study: Capstone Lab in Rocketry Design (Final Report) 

Geography: Understanding Relationships between Humans and Water Resources

Title: Understanding the Relationships between Humans and Water Resources: A Lesson Study for Introductory Geography Classes
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Geography, Environmental Studies, Water Resources, Social and Natural Sciences
Authors: John Ward, Joy Wolf, Richard Walasek, J. Scott Spiker, Melissa Gray, University of Wisconsin—Parkside
Submission Date: February 23, 2009

Executive Summary

Learning Goals: Students will gain a deeper understanding of water resource issues, the importance of conservation, and the impact of individual actions on this global issue. This lesson study will provide students an opportunity to engage in critical thinking and the knowledge of daily water conservation practices that they can incorporate into their lives toward the cumulative effort of long-term resource conservation. .

Instructional Design: At the beginning of the class period, the students were given an overview of water resources and the geographic relationship between water and human uses of water. This presentation was followed by an online demonstration of an interactive exercise in which the class as a whole participated. This activity gave the students a way to quantify individual water usage in the domestic setting, as well as n overview of cumulative water consumption habits. Students then engaged in small groups to discuss innovative water conservation methods. Each group was required to summarize their results as well as write short responses to specific questions about individual water conservation.

Major Findings: Students gained an appreciation for the relationship between local action and global consequences, an awareness of their individual domestic water consumption, and an understanding of conservation actions in which they can use in their daily lives. After reading their responses, it appeared that the students took from the lesson an intention to reduce their water consumption by (1) reducing the time engaged in certain activities and (2) investigating technological solutions for water conservation.

Biology: Human Populations

Title: Human Populations
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology
Authors: Scott Cooper, Anne Galbraith, Dan Gerber, Deb Hanmer, Daniel Sutherland, University of Wisconsin – La Crosse


General Biology is an entry-level course for science majors.  It is designed to give students a background in the fundamental concepts in biology and to prepare them for upper level courses.  We focus on problem-solving skills and the ability to interpret biological data and form models based upon the theories discussed in lecture.

The lesson on Populations is at the end of the course.  In this lesson, we try to tie together concepts we have discussed earlier in the course.  In addition to understanding the principles that impact human population growth, we also want students to discover for themselves that human population growth has a negative impact on the environment, human health and quality of life.

Research Lesson

Students are bombarded with messages from 5th grade about how humans have a negative impact on the environment.  By the time they reach college and we lecture to them on the topic again, you can literally see their brains shut off.   Students in the US are also isolated from many environmental and health issues that are current problems in much of the world.  This can lead to the perception that overpopulation is not a problem because nothing bad has happened yet.

Most of the damage to the environment can be traced directly to human overpopulation.  We want the students to collect and discuss data relevant to this issue and draw their own conclusions. We want students to be able describe how human population levels and consumption impact the environment.

The lesson was be centered around “The Parasitologist’s Dilemma”.  A dilemma facing researchers and health care providers in developing countries is the balance between overpopulation and disease.  When an effective treatment for a disease is found, it invariably leads to an increase in population, which in turn decreases the quality of life for that population, and a decrease in environmental quality.  The alternative is to let nature run its course and keep populations in check through disease and starvation.

Students were assigned a variable to research related to human populations in the United States, France and Tanzania.  They prepared a powerpoint slide containing the data from these three countries and a statement summarizing the impact of any difference on population growth.  These were then projected in class, where the students compared all of the variables to answer some specific discussion questions.


The lesson appeared to be effective in getting students to at least look at and think about the data relevant to populations, consumption and impact on the environment.  Without a good measure of how they felt on the issue coming into class, it is difficult to know if the module changed anyone’s opinions.  Students seemed to be more engaged (at least they weren’t asleep), and we went into some topics in much greater detail than we did before.  Comparing 20 variables in 3 different countries gave us a lot of different questions we could address in class.  While complex, we feel it gave students some idea of the magnitude of the issues facing scientists studying public health and the environment on a global level.

Biology Lesson Study – Human Populations (Final Report) 

Biology: Presenting Evolutionary Theory

Title: Presenting Evolutionary Theory to Introductory Biology Students
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology
Authors: Anne Galbraith, Roger Haro, David Howard, Jennifer Miskowski, Dan Sutherland, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Submission Date: October 2007

Executive Summary: Many of our students come into this introductory biology course with very little background in evolutionary theory. Yet evolution provides the foundation for understanding all of modern biology! At the end of this lesson we hoped that students could
  1. understand and appreciate evolution as a scientific theory that is fundamental to all of biology,
  2. clearly explain how evolution works,
  3. use examples that show supporting evidence for evolution.

We developed a series of PowerPoint slides that began by introducing Charles Darwin as a man by taking advantage of a recent series of articles in the lay press, including magazines such as Natural History and National Geographic. We then went through Darwin’s logic in formulating his theory based on his observations while a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. We emphasized that Darwin’s contemporaries were simultaneously formulating similar theories. We provided evidence of other adaptive radiations besides the famous Galapagos finches such as cichlid fish and the Hawaiian honeycreepers. We then explained the principles of evolutionary theory and showed how they applied to these examples that had just been presented.

After this, we had an in-class assignment in which we presented increasingly useful information about a variety of mammals from which they had to produce a phylogenetic tree showing the relationships among these mammals. First we gave them information about the animals’ habitats and feeding habits. Then we introduced the concept of using skeletons and comparative anatomy and had them re-draw their trees. Then we introduced the concept of using DNA sequences and comparative genomics to show relationships and had them re-draw their trees once again. After this, we showed them the current “real” tree and showed them pictures of the common ancestor for these modern mammals for which fossils had been found recently. Finally, we gave them an out-of-class assignment which required them to use three other articles and the internet:
  1. to find examples of “transitional fossils” which creationists claim are few and far between,
  2. to find examples of “evolution in action” which creationists claim do not exist except for microevolution,
  3. to answer questions about the Hox genes which are conserved in organisms as diverse as fruit flies and humans. In another lecture section, we shared their work with the class.
We hoped that the human approach to presenting Charles Darwin would alleviate the preconceived ideas by some of our students that he was an “evil atheist”. We hoped that by presenting them with a myriad of examples that are not “worn out”, and by forcing them to find even more examples on their own with an assignment out-of-class, that they would understand the theory better and find it more difficult to just toss this theory aside.

Biology and Education: Enzyme Functions and Properties

Title: An Introduction to Biology Lab: Enzyme Functions and Properties
Discipline(s) or Field(s): Biology, Chemistry, Health, Medicine, Education
Authors: Kama Almasi, Lisa Bardon, Kurt Freund, Isabelle Girard, Eric Singsaas, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Submission Date: August 15, 2007

Student Learning Goals: We have two different types of goals we hope to address in this lesson.  We have lesson-specific goals and we have a few goals that we hope to address throughout the course.  In our course goals, we emphasize improving our students’ comprehension of scientific concepts.  In the lesson goals, we focus on concepts relevant to how enzymes work.

General Biology Course Goals
Students will be able to:

  1. Express biological processes using mathematical, graphical, and visual form with figures.
  2. Improve oral and written communication skills
  3. Enhance collaboration skills
  4. Develop the following basic laboratory techniques: following a protocol, pipeting, measure  volume, timing, data recording, and graphing.
  5. Develop the parts of a scientific report: introduction, methods, results, and discussion.

Enzyme Function Lesson Goals
Students will be able to:

  1. Formulate a scientific question in terms of a testable hypothesis
  2. Discover the importance of enzymes in cellular metabolism
  3. Describe enzyme roles and how they relate to other biological aspects.  Example: How enzyme response to temperature determines where organisms can live on earth.
  4. Recognize and interpret nonlinear responses from their data
  5. Identify and correct misconceptions about biological functions, including: enzymes add energy, enzymes are “alive”, enzymes can “decide”, enzyme reactions are “on/off”.
  6. Define and apply the following vocabulary: enzyme, product, optimization, catalyst, protein, substrate, saturation, rate, and equilibrium.

Findings and Discussion: The lesson was a (3-hr) laboratory exercise on enzyme reactions. Students used simple materials tomeasure the rate of oxygen production from hydrogen peroxide in the presence of catalase, extracted from potatoes, which catalyzes this reaction. Once the students learned the basic measurement, they were asked to vary the concentration of enzyme, concentration of hydrogen peroxide, the temperature, and add an inhibitor. Students were asked to graph their results (e.g., relationship between temperature and oxygen production rate) for each experiment and to answer questions about the experiment, procedure, and results at each stage of the experiment. At the end of class, groups were asked to share their results with the class and discuss any differences between their results and other groups’ results.

As a result of information we gained during initial observation of the lesson, we substantially revised the protocol and lesson plan. In observations during labs using the revised protocol, we observed substantial improvements in students engagement with the material: student use of terminology increased, discussion of the topic material increased, student-instructor interaction increased, and attention to procedural details decreased.

The process of lesson study demonstrated to us, in a very dramatic way, how ineffective we are in assessing our lessons while we are teaching them. Although we were familiar with the end results of the unimproved lesson, we had not been able to determine the source of difficulties. Only when we were allowed to serve as observers – and not as instructors – were we able to devote the attention needed to listen to student conversations and understand the challenges. Afterwards, it was surprisingly easy in our group to generate ideas to address the inadequacies of our design.

The practice of teaching without observation or reflection now seems absolutely absurd. However, we have all agreed that our current teaching loads prevent us from applying our lessons from lesson study in any practical way.