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Teach Complex Concepts with Unexpected Props and Mental Imagery

Dr. Kristy Kounovsky-Shafer uses stuffed animals, office supplies, and on-the-fly visual demos to make abstract chemistry concepts more fun.

Educator

Kristy Kounovsky-Shafer, PhD

Associate Professor of Chemistry, University of Nebraska at Kearney

PhD in Analytical Chemistry, BS in Chemistry and Mathematics, minor in Biology

You have, of course, heard of using beakers and flasks in chemistry class—but stuffed animals? Kristy Kounovsky-Shafer, PhD, has found that using fun props like these can make abstract concepts easier to understand. They also pique student interest in her General Chemistry courses at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

“When I bring out the stuffed animals, students think, ‘What the heck is she doing now?’” she says. “Even if they are not interested in what we’re talking about, they’ll pay attention for that part.”

Kounovsky-Shafer says the inspiration came years ago when she watched her older sister struggle to understand the subject in school. “She’s one of those people that if she can see it, she can understand it,” she explains. So, beginning with her first teaching experiences in grad school, Kounovsky-Shafer has always made sure to weave plenty of visuals into her lectures.

“Students might hate chemistry less because of this,” she says. “They might look at it differently—as something they can learn better and that’s a little more interesting to learn.”

Challenge

Bored students, abstract concepts

Chemistry concepts are abstract and difficult to decipher, and chemistry courses have a reputation for being dull. Kounovsky-Shafer sought inexpensive, low-tech ways to overcome these obstacles and help her students learn more deeply.

Innovation

Introduce props for show-and-tell

Kounovsky-Shafer uses visual aids to make her subject more inviting. She often buys inexpensive children’s toys from a local department store, or pulls objects from her purse (including pencils and stress balls), then uses them as props when explaining complex ideas.

Context

“If I can give my students mental pictures or use kids’ toys to show [a chemistry concept], it makes it so that they can remember it.”

— Kristy Kounovsky-Shafer, PhD

Course: Chem 160 and 161 General Chemistry I and II

Description: First semester (CHEM 160) and a second semester (CHEM 161) of the comprehensive year course in chemistry. Three lectures each week. In CHEM 160, some of the material covered includes conversions, stoichiometry, balancing equations, redox reactions, gas laws, lewis structures, and valence-shell electron-pair repulsion (VSEPR). In CHEM 161, some of material covered includes intermolecular forces, solubility, equilibria, titrations, entropy, galvanic cells, and nuclear chemistry.

See resources shared by Kristy Kounovsky-Shafer, PhD

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Lesson: Teach complex concepts with visual cues

Visual learning is key to how Kounovsky-Shafer presents her lessons. “Sometimes students can’t initially imagine [a concept] in the way they need to understand it. If it’s super complex, this helps them not get lost as they learn it,” she says.

Here she shares a few specific exercises she uses in her General Chemistry class, plus tips to help educators interested in implementing similar approaches in any course.

“Act out” a concept with toys

For example, to demonstrate the concept of entropy, which can loosely be defined as “freedom of motion,” Kounovsky-Shafer has students “think outside the box”—literally. She positions one stuffed animal outside a box and another inside it. She will then gesture to each of them and ask the class, “Where does the animal have more freedom of motion—inside or outside the box? Which one can move better, which one is not confined?” With this simple imagery, students can easily see that the one outside will have more entropy.

Build simple models with office supplies

Kounovsky-Shafer uses pens to describe valence-shell electron-pair repulsion (VSEPR) theory, which predicts molecular shapes. “If you connect three pens together [at the point end], it would be considered a trigonal planar molecule, but if you remove one of those, it’s going to be a bent structure,” she says. “So students can remember what the structure looks like based on the number of pens it has.”

She will usually show this example in a lab to about 24 students. “I’ll grab six random pencils and [create a structure with them]. And then students remove each ‘atom’ and see what the shape looks like.”

Paint mental pictures with vivid analogies

Kounovsky-Shafer also likes to share chemistry analogies that paint a vivid mental picture. For example, to describe the concept of lattice energy (and the varying strengths of ionic bonds), Kounovsky-Shafer conjures up images of a person wearing an inflatable sumo wrestler costume and an average person. The average person would be able to wrap their arms around another average person more easily and hold on tighter than the two people in inflatable sumo wrestler costumes trying to hold onto each other. The sumo wrestler costume adds distance, so it would be harder to hold onto the other sumo wrestler. Which means that the pair of average people would have a higher lattice energy, due to a smaller distance.

To use the same analogy approach to clarify entropy, the example she uses is a slithering snake in a tube. It would enjoy greater motion—and therefore greater entropy—outside of the tube than inside it.

Let student questions guide you

The larger goal, says Kounovsky-Shafer, is to prepare students to tackle chemistry problems on their own. “I give them lots of problems to work on, and I encourage them to ask questions right as they start to struggle.” She then uses those questions to shape her instruction in real time, adjusting her lesson based on their immediate feedback.

“I will try to come up with the best analogy possible,” she says. But if students still are not “getting it,” she will take a different tack. “I’m comfortable doing things on the fly.”

Be creative—and confidently silly

When it comes to tips or advice for other educators, Kounovsky-Shafer says: “Be creative! Think about the hardest concepts you know students will struggle with, and figure out ways to visually show students how to understand them better.” If that requires using stuffed animals or random items from your purse, briefcase, or office, so be it.

Kounovsky-Shafer knows her method works because her students will often reference her visual lessons in essay questions on their exams, like the student who wrote that “[the animal] had more freedom of motion outside the box.”

Whatever you do, do not take yourself too seriously, she adds. “You need a decent amount of self-confidence to be able to stand up there and play with kids’ toys in front of students. But as long as students get the picture, I don’t really care what kind of example I need to give to help them get there.”

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