When Oregon State first developed online chemistry courses 12 years ago, distance learning was still an early trend. Charting new terrain, the course developers sought to create a learning experience in chemistry that could measure up to the high standards of Oregon’s leading university for science research.
Partnering with OSU's top-ranked Ecampus, the Department of Chemistry launched its first course in 2008. It has since innovated to provide labs and additional courses that provide learning experiences on par with on-campus chemistry courses.
“We want our distance classes to be known for their quality,” explained Mike Lerner, head of OSU’s chemistry department. “They must be as good as our on-campus courses.”
Online education is no longer a trend. Today it is mainstream – and the Chemistry Department’s early start and ongoing commitment to outstanding teaching, experiential learning and advising have set its online chemistry courses apart. Oregon State now offers some of the highest quality online chemistry courses in the country. More than 20 chemistry courses are offered through OSU’s Ecampus, which ranks fifth in the nation for online education by U.S. News and World Report.
But just how do you teach chemistry and a chemistry lab online? This is something Lerner and his colleagues have thought about a lot.
Like many distance programs still do today, OSU’s chemistry instructors initially offered lab kits for students to use at home. Striving to improve the learning experience, Lerner and two colleagues eventually worked with a software team to develop virtual lab simulation software.
“The software allows Ecampus students to simulate the hands-on learning experience they would have in the lab,” said Lerner. “The virtual labs have the same learning outcomes as in-person labs, but focus more on aspects such as data analysis and experiment design. They offer an experience that is comparable to the lab activities students do on campus."
"We are now perhaps the only program with an online equivalent of a full year of physical chemistry. This really distinguishes us."
The technology, now in its third generation and licensed for use at other institutions, enables OSU Ecampus faculty to teach more effectively, and helps to overcome the obstacle of teaching a lab science to students all over the world.
In 2019, Lerner won the Ecampus Innovation Award for his work developing virtual labs and the Ecampus chemistry program.
A chemistry course for everyone
Ecampus delivers a chemistry series for every type of learner – science majors, non-science majors, teachers, engineers, or students who need chemistry for other course programs, such as nursing. It also offers a nearly full suite of chemistry courses, from general chemistry to organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry.
“We are now perhaps the only program with an online equivalent of a full year of physical chemistry. This really distinguishes us,” said Lerner. Physical chemistry is math-intensive and more difficult to deliver online. The physical chemistry series is now in its second year online, “and student feedback has been quite good,” said Lerner. In fact, much of the Ecampus chemistry material is now being used for all students during this year of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One more unique course is called The Chemistry of Colors, which was developed and is taught by instructor Paula Weiss. The course is a basic introduction to chemistry concepts while exploring the science behind color. The concepts in the course can apply to a variety of topics, including history, art, botany and cell biology.
“This course applies chemical principles to better understand a fun topic. It’s great for students seeking a physical science class who don’t necessarily need to take general chemistry,” said Lerner.
“Our program is completely integrated with our in-person classes. It’s part of our focus in the online program to include highly-regarded faculty.”
OSU’s online chemistry students learn from the same instructors as on-campus students. Many of these instructors have won university-wide and College of Science awards for teaching. “Our program is completely integrated with our in-person classes,” said Lerner. “It’s part of our focus in the online program to include highly-regarded faculty.”
Three of the chemistry instructors – Daniel Myles, Marita Barth and Richard Nafshun – have won one of the College of Science’s most prestigious teaching awards: the Fred Horne Award for Excellence in Teaching Science, which recognizes faculty who demonstrate exceptional instruction and have a significant impact on students.
In 2019, Barth received the Excellence in Online Teaching and Student Engagement Award, one of the most prestigious awards offered by OSU Ecampus, for her creative use of video learning and her ceaseless dedication to student success.
"Helping students develop their study skills and figure out how to learn helps them throughout their college career and their ability to tackle a wide range of topics, not just chemistry," said Barth.
“Ecampus is not the same as a lot of schools that adjunct their online learning. I work closely with on-campus instructors. We use the same books and meet the same learning objectives,” said Barth, who teaches the General Chemistry for non-science majors Ecampus series.
Myles – who teaches the notoriously difficult and dreaded organic chemistry course – is “typically in the top five for student evaluations across the entire university,” said Lerner. Myles has won several teaching awards, including the OSU Phi Beta Kappa Award for Best University Instructor. He and Nafshun have also both received the College of Science’s Loyd F. Carter Award for Outstanding and Inspirational Teaching in Science.
Kelsey Dobesh, who took the Ecampus General Chemistry course with Myles while a student at Colorado State University, said this in her review: “Dr. Myles is an incredible instructor who genuinely cares about the success of his students. Prior to his class, I had never taken an online course, and I was initially worried I would not have any one-on-one contact with my professor or classmates. As the course progressed, however, I had more one-on-one contact with Dr. Myles than I had ever experienced in my lecture halls back home. He was prompt to respond to questions and offered numerous tools for success. I always knew his knowledge was a quick email away.”
An inclusive and supportive environment
Ecampus chemistry instructors have all completed a learning series on inclusive excellence – a key value at Oregon State. “This course has helped improve inclusivity for online students,” said Barth, who particularly enjoys working with students who do not feel fully prepared for the rigors of a college education. “Helping students develop their study skills and figure out how to learn helps them throughout their college career and their ability to tackle a wide range of topics, not just chemistry,” she said.
OSU’s Student Success Center also has study supports available for students who want extra help. The center has supplemental instruction tables that it is piloting this year via Zoom to also support Ecampus students. Supplemental instruction tables are small study groups led by upperclassman peers who have been trained in study techniques. The peer tutor has access to the course and can see what students are learning.
In addition, Barth encourages students to ask questions via discussion boards on the online learning platform. Each course has a number of teaching assistants who actively manage the discussion boards to help students work through questions. “We build a robust community because we want people to feel comfortable asking questions,” said Barth.
An accessible education for everyone
Ecampus chemistry courses are structured to maximize accessibility for students all around the globe. Courses include asynchronous instruction, allowing students to learn at times that work best for them. The course features materials accessible online, as well open-source textbooks. “We used to use a hardcopy textbook, but then our students overseas had trouble getting the book on time. This way, I can just send students the link to the book,” said Barth.
"I love being able to work with students and show them that they have been perfectly capable all along"
OSU’s distance chemistry students range in age and life stage. Some are post-college professionals looking to make a career change. Some are nursing students whose programs require chemistry but do not provide it. Some are high school or home-school students wanting college-level instruction and college credits. Others are current on-campus students who find the Ecampus courses work better for their schedule.
“I’ve had students as young as 11 and as old as 80,” said Barth. “There’s a super wide range. We get a lot of veterans, active duty or even deployed military as well.”
Taking Ecampus courses is an affordable option because all online students pay the same tuition rate no matter where they live. With the COVID-19 pandemic, Ecampus enrollment has seen a jump with more out-of-state students opting to take online chemistry courses, and more people contemplating a career change.
“I have a lot of students who didn’t do what they wanted to do the first time through their education, or even didn’t pursue an education because there were some classes that they thought were insurmountable. Chemistry is usually one of those classes,” Barth, who has been teaching Ecampus chemistry courses since 2011.
“But I love being able to work with students and show them that they have been perfectly capable all along – that they are actually able to do this and get through it and say, ‘yes, this is not going to be the thing that stops me from doing what I want to do,’” she said.