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Who needs test tubes? Chemistry students devise a new tool

IU Northwest students recognized by web site Mathematica for their creative use of mathematics software to demonstrate chemistry concepts

Monday Feb 25, 2013

A common depiction of a chemistry classroom might include students in lab coats and goggles, surrounded by beakers, balances and Bunsen burners. But in today’s technological learning environment, chemistry is also taking students into labs lined with computers in addition to test tubes.

That’s where seven students of Nelson DeLeon, Ph.D., associate dean for Arts and Sciences and chair of the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy at Indiana University Northwest, created an interactive learning tool that has earned accolades and a permanent place on the Mathematica website under what is known as the “Wolfram Demonstration Project.”

As part of his Physical Chemistry (C361) course in Fall 2012, DeLeon challenged his students to learn Mathematica -- software that enables researchers to solve and illustrate complex mathematical manipulations -- and apply it to a chemistry-related problem.

After completing some homework assignments to help them learn their way around the software, the students decided to use it to create a visual tool to help beginning chemistry students understand a basic chemistry concept known as “limiting reagents.” The students built a computer model that users can manipulate to help them visualize the effects of a limiting reagent during the formation of a product, such as water formed from hydrogen and oxygen, given varying amounts of reactants.

Sameera Raziuddin, a senior chemistry and pre-med student, said the group wanted to develop something that students could interact with in order to supplement their lessons in limiting reagents.

“If you don’t understand that in basic chemistry,” she said, “it is really hard to build on that. We wanted to show something that beginning students can use to understand.”

The students submitted their project, “Limiting Reagent for the Reaction of Hydrogen and Oxygen to Form Water,” to Mathematica’s website, where it will reside permanently. It appears that their project tapped into previously uncharted territory, DeLeon said, as the inventory of demonstrations on the site is heavy on physics and mathematical concepts, but there was nothing pertaining to the application of Mathematica to chemistry concepts.

“The students’ project is the first one,” DeLeon said, “and this resource is something that is used across the country by students all the way up to the highest caliber of researchers.”

DeLeon said that learning applications like Mathematica is fast becoming a necessity as applications like it join mainstream science. That’s a good trend for many reasons, he said. Programs like Mathematica help take the mathematical tedium out of projects and let creativity flow more freely. Also, he said, such applications can take the edge off of chemistry for students who aren’t as strong in math.

Nick Miljevic, a senior chemistry major, said this project served as his first exposure to computer programming.

“The Wolfram Mathematica program itself is cutting edge,” Miljevic said. “It is probably one of the newest mathematical engines where you can plug in formulas or functions and get outputs. For us to use it in a way to help introductory chemistry students use this complex system in an easy way is noteworthy.”

Senior David Dimitroff said the Mathematica project was an exciting opportunity for the students to unite as a class and pool their strengths to achieve the published product.

“From idea generation to programming to the final visual touches, our success would not have been possible without the effort of the entire team,” he said. “We are all proud of the work and hope that it will benefit chemistry students who are learning about limiting reagents. We also hope that the project reflects well the mission of IU Northwest to advance knowledge and learning through scholarly work and research.”

The students in Physical Chemistry (C361), who can now include their published research on their resumes, are: David Dimitroff; Christopher Hilbrich; Igbal Michael, Nicholas Miljevic; Nabeela Mohideen; Sameera Raziuddin; and Kelly Stanley.

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