Education

How Science Classrooms — and Ultimately Students — Can Benefit From Technological Innovations

As we enter autumn, with schools reopening and students recharged from the summer months, the spotlight is back on the classroom.

That made it ideal timing for Schrödinger’s recent Educator’s Day event, the first of an annual series to bring together K-12 and university educators to discuss computational tools in the science classroom. Throughout this year’s event, a recurring sentiment from speakers and attendees alike was that cutting-edge technology gives science educators a unique opportunity to enrich the overall learning experience of tomorrow’s scientists.

With the  2021-2022 academic school year upon us, we’d like to share a few key takeaways from our Educator’s Day event that may serve science educators well as they think about how to adapt and modernize curriculums for their students (and hopefully aspiring scientists)!

Virtual Reality to Bridge the Distance

The pandemic certainly created challenges for educators who had to rapidly transition to teaching science courses remotely. Dr. Brent Stockwell, professor of biological science and chemistry at Columbia University and the keynote speaker of the 2021 Educator’s Day, has found that virtual reality was one way to better bridge this gap. Dr. Stockwell shared his own research and others’ about the benefits virtual reality can offer to remote science learning.

A primary benefit of virtual reality, he has found, is that it enables a more interactive way of teaching and more immersive learning than Zoom. For example, students are able to work in 3D with molecules and proteins, which improves their understanding of biochemistry and their overall engagement. Possibly thanks to these effects, Dr. Stockwell found that students learning over virtual reality performed better overall in class than students learning the same material over Zoom.

Giving Students More Choice

Another takeaway from the event was the potential for student-directed learning enabled by technology. Jamie Schiffer, a lecturer at UC San Diego, shared her experiences with recent changes to the curriculum of her Introduction to Bioinformatics course, in which she decided to flip the traditional course model on its head to make it as unique and engaging as possible for students.

To do this, she focused on flexibility and student-centered learning. The students chose their own coding track at the start of the quarter (DataCamp or R) and they chose between two quarterly projects, one of which was participating in Schrödinger’s Molecular Modeling online course, giving students a unique insight into professional possibilities in the field of bioinformatics. Even grading was approached in a flexible way, with students required to earn 1,000 points – no deadlines or grades – through paths of their own choosing, including trivia and pop quizzes.

The course was well-received by students, and seems to have sparked deep engagement as well: Ten of the students in Dr. Schiffer’s course went on to apply for PhD programs in bioinformatics. Charting their own paths in this case seemed to have given students a better taste of the professional possibilities and encouraged more engagement in the classroom.

Molecular Simulations in Chemistry Instruction

A third insight from this inaugural Educator’s Day event was the powerful utility of molecular simulations in chemistry classrooms, which several of the event sessions touched upon.

José Gascón, professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, mentioned that, historically, molecular simulation presented a real challenge in the classroom. For instance, here were never enough computer lab resources. However, with comprehensive virtual educational modeling software, such as Schrödinger’s, students have the access to do things like modeling theory behind molecular simulations, creating fragmented molecules and optimizing them, running docking projects and quantum chemistry calculations, and more.

“Moving forward, I don’t need a computer lab…we have a single software and comprehensive platform to do all kinds of molecular simulations,” said Professor Gascón.

In reflecting on students in her class who completed the Schrödinger Introduction to Molecular Modeling in Drug Discovery online course, Dr. Schiffer said, “What was great about the students going through the [course] is that they learned key skills…and really advanced tools that most people would only get access to when they go into an industry setting.”

While science curricula are ever-evolving, many lines of evidence show that modernizing teaching tools and methodologies can tremendously benefit students. It is up to today’s science educators to continue to rethink what teaching science means in our new virtual world and how to make it as engaging as possible for students. At Schrödinger, we would be honored to help educators with this large and worthwhile task.

Here’s to the school year 2021-2022!

Author Photo: Jenny Chambers, Ph.D.

Jenny Chambers, Ph.D.

Jenny earned her Ph.D. in natural product synthesis and did her postdoc in a chemical biology lab. From there, she transitioned away from the bench and joined Schrӧdinger’s Education Team in 2016. As part of the Education team, Jenny oversees Schrӧdinger’s online learning platform, makes sure scientists know how to apply computational methods with best practices for their specific research needs, and uses Schrӧdinger’s software to help get students of all ages excited about solving problems in science.

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