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APSU professor explores use of iPads in chemistry classrooms

4/22/2013

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            CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – For more than a century, quiet students have suffered from a common phobia known as “board shyness.” They keep their eyes down and hope the teacher picks someone else to write on the board at the front of the classroom.

            “You want students to come up to the board to work, to become more confident in their knowledge,” Dr. Bob Shelton, Austin Peay State University associate professor of chemistry, said. “Some suffer from board shyness. They’re scared of what they’re about to write. We can overcome that with some of the iPad apps that allow them to work from their seat. Then, through the technology that we have, they can project their answers so that the entire class can see it and learn from it.”

            Overcoming board shyness is only one of the many advantages Shelton has discovered through his ongoing research of iPads as teaching tools. For the last two years, he has compared APSU chemistry classrooms that use tablet devices with chemistry classrooms that simply use tradition lecture practices.

            “We saw gains with iPads,” he said. “We saw statistically significant results pointing to iPads as increasing student learning.”

         Shelton recently presented some of his findings at the International Conference on Chemistry Education in Rome, at the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education and at the National American Chemical Society Meeting in New Orleans. He hosts workshops across the country on incorporating iPads into chemistry classrooms. Shelton has also been invited to host a workshop, “iPads in the Classroom,” and give a keynote lecture on “Teaching and Learning Chemistry” at the first African Conference on Research in Chemical Education in Ethiopia this December. 

            “We show that at worst, iPads had no effect on student learning, but in the majority of the cases, iPads helped improve student retention and student knowledge,” Shelton said.

            The findings are significant because schoolrooms across the country still look very much like the classrooms the American education reformer Horace Mann championed in the 1840s and 1850s. Shelton sat at his desk inside the Sundquist Science Complex last week and demonstrated how much more dynamic a chemistry class can be with an iPad. Using an app, several circles representing atoms appeared on the iPad. The circles bounced slowly around the screen, but when Shelton pressed an arrow, causing the temperature to change, the atoms sped up.

            “The students can visualize it,” he said. “It’s more of an interactive experience.”

            A grant from the APSU Office of the Provost provided funding for the 30 iPads. Shelton hopes to continue expanding his research to benefit students in classrooms across the globe.

            “If we can increase students’ enthusiasm, increase their active learning in a lecture, they’re going to retain more,” he said. “They’re going to learn more. This is technology we can use to do that.”