A Journey from Vision to Product to Implementation

May 15, 2019
Company & TechnologySarah Wegwerth

Two questions that launched a company

I LOVED teaching lab! Why? The lab was an active learning room and there was no way around it. I was able to interact with students, be their chemistry coach, and there was nothing more exciting than seeing the epiphany!

Then, came my chance to move on from being a lab TA to an actual lecturer. A dream come true, right?  I soon discovered I really do not like lecturing. I was teaching second semester organic chemistry to approximately 250 students. Much of the material was mechanism-based, so I was at a loss as to how to incorporate active learning activities. Besides, was it even practical to monitor students’ work through mechanisms during lecture?!

As detailed in “The Mechanisms App and Platform: A New Game-Based Product for Learning Curved Arrow Notation (1), the genesis of Mechanisms really came about as an answer to two key questions.

"Question 1: Was it possible to use game-based learning and touch-screen apps to scale this kind of interactivity [formative feedback] to student in college setting, where class sized range from 60-300 students?"

"Questions 2: Could the bond-making and breaking arrows of organic chemistry mechanisms also be used as a tool for moving through a game-based learning experience?"

Through instructor and student feedback, as well as the dedication of Alchemie’s talented team, Mechanisms has come a long way already in making the answer to these questions is a big YES!

The book chapter includes three different case studies. There are really promising results though from the study at a public research university on the west coast. Here, Mechanisms was used during quiz sessions, a class meeting time outside of lecture, where students worked in small groups. Remarkably, even though they had not yet been taught the SN1 mechanism in lecture, 40% of the groups that wrote out a complete reaction mechanism correctly drew a two-step substitution process as a result of playing the app. It was also interesting to note that before playing Mechanisms 36% of the groups drew all lone-pairs on all structures at every step of the mechanism. While using Mechanisms though this dropped to one group and the majority of groups focused their attention on drawing only the lone-pairs involved, or where the action is occurring. Overall though, students were successful in translating between the app and writing mechanisms on paper.

We can see the feedback students get from the app is helpful, but what about instructors? The book chapter also introduces how the backend data collected by the app can be used to identify common errors that are perhaps not intuitive to the instructor. For example, an expert in organic chemistry would look at hydronium and see an acidic hydrogen atom. From the data collected by the app though, there are a large number of students who look at hydronium and see an electrophilic oxygen atom that should be attacked by a nucleophile.

We are just starting to mine the data from the over 250,000 sessions collected from users of the app, and the next step of our NSF research will be to develop a “smart” hint system for Mechanisms. This method will be expanded to subjects beyond organic chemistry.

While lecturing did not meet my dreams, the experience inspired a new passion within me, to find ways to make learning organic chemistry more interactive. I actually met Julia and first heard about Mechanisms during my last week of lecturing. Right away I saw an opportunity to  have a positive impact for students everywhere and to help other instructors make an active learning classroom more practical. For me, though, it was more than the product, it was also the vision and culture of Alchemie that led me to join the team.

To see what I mean, I really encourage you to read the story of Mechanisms for yourself. It is a unique chance to experience what it took to make an idea a reality. You will feel the passion of a dedicated educator. You will find a theme of product improvement based on instructor and student feedback. You may even be surprised and anxious yourself when you first read the quote for the cost to develop the app. Finally, perhaps like me, you’ll be left waiting in eager anticipation to see what new improvement is next for the app and even other Alchemie products.

1.Winter, J. E.; Wegwerth, S. E.; Dekorver, B. K.; Morsch, L. A.; DeSutter, D.; Goldman, L. M.; Reutenauer, L. M. The Mechanisms App and Platform: A New Game-Based Product for Learning Arrow-Pushing. In Active Learning in Organic Chemistry: Implementation and Analysis; Houseknecht, J. B., Ed.; ACS Symposium Series; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2019; Just Accepted. (ChemRxiv pre-print here.)

Co- Author