Looking for ConfChem? ConfChem now resides at its new site, confchem.ccce.divched.org


Stepping away from the chalkboard


This past week I was away from my class for family reasons and took this opportunity to do a small experiment in using YouChem Tutorials in combination with other web-based resources in place of a physical lecture.  Although I've taught online quite a bit, it made me nervous to step away from the chalkboard (and my projector) in my bricks and mortar class to let the internet do some teaching for me.  

I constructed an assignment that gave some review in molecular structure stepping students through web-based exercises on the Molecular Workbench involving molecular geometry and modeling of electron behavior in atoms and molecules.  I followed this review with the use of my YouChem Tutorials on resonance and calculating bond energies to introduce these new topics.   

These activities were accompanied by a worksheet that gave students structured questions based on these exercises and then extended this with some more challenging problems.  

The feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive.  They enjoyed the active learning and did very well learning these topics independently.  They gave me excellent work on the worksheets they turned in and came to my office with deep questions on these topics. I haven't gotten the feedback from a formal survey yet, but I was impressed with the success of this experiment.  Many have said to me, "do more things like that" and "I liked working on my own and being able to replay the videos and learn at my own pace."  They were also pleased that they could go back to these videos and review for the final exam.

This speaks to Harry Pence's CCCE Newsletter article on the Clash of the Titans and the use of media by students. Why should students only hear a lecture once and rely on notes that may be imperfect?  Why can't they replay it at home at their own pace?  There are new ways to deliver content that may not just augment our traditional classes but replace the podium as a content delivery platform.  Much as I love to lecture, I see the value in this mode of learning, especially in the age of limited educational budgets.  I can leverage my student's investment in technology (their smartphones, computers, iPads) to enrich their experience.  

I had an inverted classroom when I taught exclusively online (content-rich lectures delivered as videos on students own time), and that felt very natural.  However when I meet my students in a physical space designed around this featureIt feels odd to step away from the chalkboard.  Perhaps we also need to change our physical spaces to facilitate new media.

Skip Twilight, check out the YouChem Tutorials series!

Today I've surpassed thirteen videos on YouTube! I'm excited to have started some series on YouChem Tutorials as well.  I now have series on chemical nomenclature, and Lewis structures.  A series on electron configurations is in production and coming soon.

I am getting caught up with the pace of my class and need to fill in some very important videos on skills like balancing equations, stoichiometry, solutions, gas laws and thermodynamics.  Look out for series in these areas as I break down topics into key skills.

The nice thing about using the Doceri program for some in-class work as well as for these videos is that I can pass materials back and forth between the projects. For some of the material I "missed" as my class has progressed through the quarter, I will be "recycling" some of my inclass materials.  I may modify, clip or add on to them when I go in to record an audio track for these but I do not have to write something completely new.  I am doing this a bit in the interest of time, and would like to have unique materials for each of my audiences for reinforcement.  However, this time around, the setup of the blog, the YouChem site and standarization of a process for making these videos took a bit more time than I would have liked.  I'm looking forward to implementing a model next quarter where I follow the material I present in class with little summaries online.  This is hopefully more doable in that course because the pace is a bit slower and deeper (I know... the best laid plans... but I'll try!).




Here's a video that got me thinking about what's possible and new in delivering ideas and also a little bit about my and my students motivations. This is a great example of the power of freeform illustration (and a great artist).

Lessons on format from my trash can


 Here’s what I’ve learned about format from making videos.  These lessons come from the videos you don’t see on YouChem Tutorials.  They are the ones left on on the virtual cutting room floor, AKA “Trash” on my desktop.

What does work:

  • Black and white color scheme with color as highlight
  • White background
  • A limited/simple color palette
  • Limited content displayed on each slide
  • Clear format for all presentations with the topic written at the top 
  • Under 10 minute length

Here are the reasons why:

Color Scheme:   I like nice clean presentations but I also wanted to do with Doceri what I can’t do well on a chalkboard.   Color is something that Doceri does well.  There is a whole palette of pen colors I can use, different sized pen options.  I went a little crazy at first.    

What worked:  I was a bit disappointed to learn that a "boring" white background, black pen color looked best.  I use this for all text and save color for illustrations of items I really wanted to highlight, drawings or diagrams. 

Why?  I tried a black background just like a “chalkboard” but the number of colors in doceri that show up on a black or grey background is limited.   The contrast of these   bright colors (light yellow, pink, blue green) on black tends to wear on the eyes.  White with black might seem boring, but what is important is clarity and a simple color scheme worked best. 

Other important color issues:  

Color blindness.  I wanted to be conscious of red/green color schemes.  Doceri has a lot of colors other than these and I shy away, even when there is a  standard color scheme in place (red/blue color scheme for acid-base chemistry for example).   

Overuse of color:   Too many different colors on a slide removed the impact of having many colors available.  My first videos used a different color for each new statement on a slide, or different colors every time I gave a new example.  The contrasting colors stopped having meaning and it was better to use color sparingly.  The black text on white background with colors only to highlight helps make the use of color as an accent more meaningful.

Presentation organization:   My first videos had a lot of writing on each slide. The screen can get busy and cluttered making it difficult to sort out important points.  Also more writing takes longer to explain and narrate.  This got me into trouble with the 10 min limit.

Presentation standard format:    It took a conscious effort to free myself from a “powerpoint” style of presentation.  I'm still not free. Even in my lectures on a real chalkboard (or on this blog), this technology has bulletized the world and standardized the "appropriate" way to format presentations.  I’m still working on thinking outside the box and bullet.  I’ve kept the “Title” format of the slides with the main topic of the tutorial on the top of the slide because it makes it easy to locate and browse videos on YouTube.

Presentation length and scope:  The goal for this project was to provide bite-sized chunks of information.  One skill at a time to break things down for students into little bits they could view as they worked their homework. This is not easy. But developing the standard style and being strict on clutter helps.


Creating Doceri Videos

The process of creating Doceri videos for use in my classes or online for my videos is the same.  Creating a video of making these videos is a bit of an odd concept and difficult as I'm working between my computer and my iPad, and would need more hands to accomplish this.   So I took some photos today as I worked so you could see what I was doing. 

How Doceri works:

Doceri uses a wireless connection between your computer and your iPad along with the Doceri software to allow the iPad to control your computer.  It can control any computer it is linked to via the software over a wireless connection.  

When controlling Powerpoint or even your desktop, the iPad screen looks like a mirror of your desktop.

You use the Doceri “goodpoint” stylus (green in the photo) or whatever stylus you wish.  You can use your finger too, but my fingers are too big to make anything other than child-like finger paintings.  The Doceri stylus plugs into the headphone jack on the iPad and the connection lets the pen do some great things.  It prevents marks from your hand on the iPad surface.  Since the iPad has a conductive surface designed to interact with skin, anytime you put your hand on the screen it should make a mark, the stylus and Doceri software prevents this.  The stylus also has two ends, a writing and erasing end like a pencil, this is helpful when drawing.

You can draw on anything that’s displayed on your desktop.  I’ve drawn on .pdfs in class, Word docs. Powerpoint slides and photos. 

Under the Hood at YouChem Tutorials

To make my YouChem tutorials and to prepare for classes where I’m displaying content using my iPad as a digital whiteboard I write out the content on a background provided with the Doceri software.  You can change the background at any time so for my videos I first choose a “graph paper” background so that I guide my handwriting in straight lines.


I write out my lecture or my video text and drawings, inserting little “stops” (the red lollipops) where I want the playback to pause.  You can see this in the photo below.


Doceri records each penstroke and replays them stroke by stroke, including erasures, in the order that they are written.  The stops tell the recording where to pause when you replay it.  The whole penstroke timeline is shown at the top of the iPad screen with the little red lollipops showing where stops are found.  You use the white curly arrows at the top right to erase or replace (undo or redo) penstrokes in the timeline, you use the green play buttons to fast forward and rewind you in time. They do this by playing (the big play button) playing forward or backward one stroke at a time (the next set of buttons) or forward or backward to the next stop (the outer green buttons).  The slider at the left speeds and slows the replay of your video.

When I'm done writing, I change the background behind the writing so that it is a white screen.  Voila!  A polished product.  And you thought I was remarkably talented at writing in a straight line.


Behind the Scenes at YouChem Tutorials

My growing inventory of tutorials is found on the YouChem Tutorials Channel on YouTube. I've started to post these in the order they might be used in a curriulum. These are getting easier to make and I will be posting them with greater frequency as I get practice making and editing the videos. It has taken some time to develop a process, format, color scheme and decide on standard features for the YouChem Tutorials. It is a bit like creating a brand. I'll talk about this in future blog posts. The first thing I want to cover was my process for creating the videos.

Here's my process for making the tutorial videos:

1. Write the video content in my iPad using Doceri.

2. Use Quicktime to do a audio and video screencapture of me working through the doceri interactive video and talking over the animated drawing.

3. Import the video into iMovie. Edit the video to remove the screen capture tag ends (me starting the video, ending the video). Add the standard YouChem Tutorials ending "credits" clip.

4. Have iMovie process the video into the format required for YouTube, I choose the "mobile" option that allows playback on most devices. It is lower resolution but has more available viewing options.

5. Automatically upload to YouTube through iMovie. This takes from 5-10 minutes depending on the length of the movie.

That's it! The biggest challenge is authoring a video that will end up being under 10 minutes. This is no longer the limit to the length of YouTube videos, but it is a good length for YouTube, any longer and the videos tend to get cut off or take a long time to post or load. I've decided to keep my videos under this length as a rule.

It's tough to do lessons with a sharp focus on one skill, as we know chemistry is interrelated. I found it tough in my initial video on atomic symbols not to talk about isotopes and ions. But I wanted to separate the idea of understanding and writing the symbol from the idea of an isotope or an ion. It is a real challenge to include only the relevant information for a "tutorial" focusing on a set skill or idea and not make this a 10 min "lecture" focusing on a topic. I've found these are vastly different exercises from the perspective an instructor.

If you find my tutorials lacking in background or theory, that's because they're not intended to provide this. Students go to the internet to "learn to do" something, they don't want a lecture. I feel that's the purpose of their "live" course (wherever that may be). My job in these tutorials is to give them a brief look at the skills they need to build. Perhaps it will give them the boost they need to complete an assignment or gain some understanding before an exam. Some videos will contain more content, but most will be focused on doing something: a problem, some naming, etc. I just don't have time in 10 min to give more than that and I want a tool rather than an online course for students.

Getting the project started

Here are a couple of questions I asked myself before I started this project.

1. What’s wrong with a plain old chalkboard to teach chemistry?  

Nothing, if that’s what you learned on.  But today’s students didn’t.  They’ve been “presented to” their entire academic lives using powerpoint, computers, digital whiteboards and plain old whiteboards.  Chalk talks are a bit dry.  Yes, a great lecturer could lecture from inside a cardboard box, without a board, hands tied behind her back and people would be enlightened. But most people aren’t these “great lecturers” we need a little help from visual aids.  Our ability to verbally paint pictures in people’s minds is limited, and this is especially so in chemistry.  I’m painting pictures of things my students have never seen before or things no one has seen with the naked eye.  So I need a little help.

Chalk is simple and it can be very effective, but several centuries of use have shown some drawbacks:  it’s messy (I’m constantly paranoid about chalkprints in inappropriate locations),  there is a large amount time spent facing the board, the background is monochrome black/green, the size of the classroom relative to the chalkboard is constantly increasing and finally chalk is transient.

A digital chalkboard has some advantages (and many issues as well).  I want to explore those, especially those that are unique to the presentation of chemistry using standard digital presentation tools.   I’ll go into those challenges in a future post, they are great, especially in a digital world of standard fonts and drawing palettes. 

2.  Why not stay in my own classroom and teach my own students?  

Why not reach out and help other students? I didn’t think I could do that until  I created my pilot YouTube video on balancing redox reactions in March, 2011.  I'm a little embarassed to show this here, but here it is on my original YouTube Channel:

It was a simple whiteboard capture, no audio and lots of text. I put it up to help my students before a test.  They just didn’t get the process of balancing redox equations and in office hours I spent a week demonstrating this over and over.  So I made a video of it.


In since then the video has been viewed 1604 times in over 32 countries on all major continents.  My class the quarter I created it had 84 students. I don’t think they watched it 19 times each, while they backpacked across the globe over the summer.  So I touched people who needed help on the other side of the  world.  That's pretty amazing!  I’m hooked on the idea expanding this impact.  Both through my own work or with collaborators making their own materials using the help I can provide through this blog.

Welcome to the YouChem Blog

Welcome to the YouChem Blog, a chronicle on professor's journey into the use of new e-whiteboard technologies in my classroom and in the world’s classroom, YouTube.

As a bit of background, I’ve spent most of my career teaching chemistry and biochemistry “live” as a faculty member at Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo CA. I entered the virtual world by teaching entirely online for two years while setting up the chemistry curriculum at Stanford University’s Education Program for Gifted Youth’s Online High School (EPGY-OHS).


That tore the roof off my classroom.


Back from my e-hiatus, I stepped back into the groove of a traditional classroom. I’m a bit awkward there now and not quite satisfied with the chalkboard, but while teaching online I longed for chalk.

I’m a teacher in a technology transition (as many of us are). This blog is my experiment in accomplishing two goals: First, I want to be able to remediate my students or perhaps refresh my students on key skills outside of class. Second, I want to do things in my classroom with this software that I can’t do or do well with a real chalkboard or an overhead projector.

I’m using my MacBookPro, a first generation iPad, doceri software and their GoodPoint stylus.

I've started using doceri this quarter both in class and outside of class. My in-class usage is nearly every day and I mix it up between using doceri and the chalkboard. I'm beginning to produce videos to supplement and remediate in my classroom (there are only three up now) and I'm posting them on my YouTube channel: YouChem Tutorials.

This blog will give my perspective on: my process of going more digital, using these tools effectively, the pros and cons, tips and tricks of the process of going more digital in presentations and in video production.

Though I do use it, throughout this blog you will hear my great disdain for powerpoint, especially in STEM education. If you share this, and want new ways to engage your student’s brains, stay tuned!


Here's an example of the videos I'm posting.

Navigating an Internet of Chemistry via ChemSpider by Antony Williams

On October 14, 2011 Dr. Antony Williams presented the second online talk to students and faculty at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock dealing with cheminformatics.  This presentation was on the use of ChemSpider to acquire information on chemical compounds over the web and included material like the use of InChI and InChI keys for structure and substructure searches. 

This was presented with the open source BigBlueButton conference management system and Dr. Williams has shared his presentation with us which you may watch through the one hour video below, or access Dr. William's slides through the slideshare presentation below.

Dr. Williams Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYfjpSkau2c Dr. Williams Slides:


Essential Cheminformatics by David J. Wild

On October 7, 2011 Dr. David J. Wild, Director of the Cheminformatic Program at Indiana University-Bloomington gave the first hybrid online presentation to the UALR department of Chemistry seminar series using BigBlueButton conference management system and Skype.  Although this was a lecture to departmental faculty and students, Dr. Wild was presenting on core cheminformatic material which we feel graduating students should be cognizant of, and components of this lecture would be incorporated into the Cheminformatics OLCC.  That is, how do you represent molecules in a way that computers understand, and what are the issues with such representations.  This is actually the first of two presentations and Dr. Tony Williams will give a followup on Oct. 14 which will build upon the material presented here.  Dr. Wild was kind enough to allow us to record this and share his slides through slideshare.

Here is a YouTube video of Dr. Wild's presentation.

Here is a slideshow from slideshare.

Oct 2011 ualr

Syndicate content