Date: February 18, 2013

YorkGCeLS rThe Rutgers University Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department is quickly moving forward with a novel e-learning system that could transform the way students learn chemistry at universities and grade schools nationwide, while helping educators fill the void for better trained personnel in the science industries.

“Any student that has taken a general chemistry class at a large university understands the challenge of learning the complex subject in a lecture hall with 350 to 400 students,” said Chemistry Professor and General Chemistry Coordinator Darrin York, who directs the technical software design and implementation of the General Chemistry eLearning System (GCeLS). “Even for the strongest students, general chemistry is a struggle because they need to develop problem solving skills that reach far beyond what they have learned in high school. We believe GCeLS is vital to managing this challenge and preparing students for coursework and careers in the sciences.”

GCeLS will provide a cyber infrastructure with an interactive website and relational chemical databases that are integrated with a hierarchical network of critical skills required to solve chemistry problems. Students will do homework problems on the GCeLS website,, which goes live in the Fall. GCeLS is an intuitive technology that never creates the same problem twice and is geared toward the unique skills of each student. The system will store each student’s progress and allow faculty to determine where students have problems. Online tools will also be available to allow students to self-diagnose their learning challenges, leading to better utilization of lecture and recitation time as well as faculty office hours.

“We have tried every e-learning technology on the marketplace today and none of them did what we wanted, so we decided to create our own artificial intelligence system,” said York, a computation scientist who came to Rutgers from the University of Minnesota in 2010. “GCeLS is not meant to replace classroom interaction, but to enhance it. Our goal is to have lectures focus on the key chemistry concepts and their inter-relationships, and illustrate real life examples where they are important. After class, students digest the material by using our e-learning tool to work through numerical exercises that place the concepts into a practical context. What we want to avoid is number crunching through problems in lecture to the point students don’t see the chemistry – that’s how you lose the interest of a lecture hall with 400 students.”

John Brennan, Rutgers Chemistry Professor and Vice Chair of the Undergraduate Program, notes that there is an ever-increasing demand for undergraduate students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM fields. The demand is driven by the needs of high tech industries, academia, medical professions, and basic and applied science research labs.

“General chemistry is really the cultural gateway to the sciences, but there is a very high failure rate for students because the subject material is challenging and students frequently jump into the class too early in their collegiate careers,” said Brennan. “Faculty members are faced with the challenge of dumbing down the class or finding innovative ways to educate students. Nowhere is this need more evident than in chemistry, which is considered the central science that connects the physical and life basic sciences. Chemistry forms a bridge with applied sciences such as material science, engineering and medicine. As a result, universities nationwide have had to face great challenges to provide quality entry-level training for students in gateway STEM classes.”

York said the Rutgers team, which includes lead content developer Francesca Guerra and lead technical developer Kar Lun James Chun, hopes to create a powerful GCeLS tool that can be utilized by higher education institutions and grade schools nationwide. “We believe our model for e-learning cyber infrastructure can be extended to other STEM courses,” said York, who serves on the Rutgers Online Educational Steering Committee and the Committee for Undergraduate Education.

Also in the Fall, the Chemistry Department plans to offer general chemistry recitation classes online everyday and at least one section of the chemistry lecture online. The department also established a Chemistry Lecture Demonstration Facility, directed by York, which brings demonstrations into the classroom.

“We are trying to address student frustrations, such as not being able to get the recitation class times they want,” York said. “At the same time, we are looking for every opportunity to help faculty keep students engaged and develop the science leaders of tomorrow.”

Photo Caption:
Rutgers Chemistry Professor Darrin York (far right) demonstrates the General Chemistry eLearning System with (from left) Ph.D. candidates Thakshila Dissanayake and Maria Panteva.

Media Contact:
Fred Feiner
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