Teacher works to make chemistry lovable to kids
Beverly Hills — Julia Winter loves organic chemistry. So much so, the Detroit Country Day Upper School chemistry teacher created an app for students to make it fun so they can love it as much as she does.
But the Chairs! app is only the beginning. What she’s really excited about is a new app — the Mechanism Game, which is in the research study phase — that earned her a $150,000 grant for small business innovative research from the National Science Foundation. Winter also received the Teacher Trailblazer award from the 2015 Digital Innovation in Learning Awards, and the James Bryant Conant Award from the American Chemical Society.
All these awards are much appreciated by Winter, who hails from a family of chemists, and whose husband, Charles Winter, is a professor and associate chair of the Department of Chemistry at Wayne State University.
“What drives me is what I’ve learned from my students, and that is the power of a touch screen and how understanding chemistry can help students everywhere succeed worldwide,” she said.
Her school’s headmaster is equally appreciative.
“Each one of Julia’s recent awards is in and of itself a significant achievement,” said Glen Shilling. “To have an individual earn three national recognitions at once is truly unique and illustrates the incredible drive, creativity and educational impact that we have come to expect from Julia. The entire DCDS community is very proud.”
Winter explains the Chairs! app and the Mechanism Game app this way:
“Mechanisms, maps of electron movements, are an underpinning concept throughout organic chemistry,” she said. “When students understand mechanisms, the learning of organic chemistry becomes a much more intuitive process, as opposed to relying on rote memorization.”
She said the Mechanism Game will transform this important concept into a touch-screen mobile game application, while the Chairs! app makes a puzzle out of a small concept (cyclohexane chair conformers) taught early in the course.
“The Mechanism Game can span the entire curriculum, into graduate levels,” she said. “Both will be multi-platform (iOS and Android) apps.”
The Digital Innovation in Learning Awards, being offered for the second year, showcase innovation in education technology by educators, administrators and organizations.
The James Bryant Conant Award, which recognizes outstanding high school chemistry teachers, includes a $5,000 grant. Winter also has developed an award symposium in which she is inviting academic chemists to present at the American Chemical Society meeting in March 2016.
Winter said she spent $75,000 of her own money to create the Chairs! visual pattern puzzle game.
“The $75,000 investment was mostly to plan and prototype the signature Mechanism Game,” she said.
Chairs! is a free app. The initial tutorial levels for the Mechanism Game also will be free. After that, it will sold in bundles of puzzles, although there is no designated price yet. “We’re keeping it affordable, and well below the cost of a textbook,” she said.
Winter said the Chairs! app was named for a chair conformer, which is a way of visualizing molecules.
“When you build a model of this conformer, it looks like a chair or a three-legged milking stool,” she said.
The Chairs! app was designed for college freshmen and sophomores, but also is used at Detroit Country Day School.
“We teach higher ed — a full year of organic chemistry for mostly seniors and some juniors,” said Winter. “There are very few high schools that teach a full year of organic chemistry.”
She said the Chairs! app is working to help students understand the subject.
“Learning outcomes after using Chairs! were measured in a classroom trial at DCDS, and showed significant improvement in understanding of the concept,” she said.
As far as the future of the Mechanism Game, she is quite excited.
“It’s huge,” she said. “This thing is going to rock the world. Kids will be able to pass this class, who never passed before.”