Developing an Active Approach to Chemistry-Based Group Theory

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It’s Just Math: Research on Students’ Understanding of Chemistry and Mathematics

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Chapter 13. Group theory, particularly the concept of symmetry, has applications in many different scientific fields and is an important part of the undergraduate curriculum in mathematics. In upper-level mathematics courses, group theory is only discussed abstractly, and students are rarely given an opportunity to apply these ideas to real-world problems. To better appreciate the applicability of group theory and symmetry, a local instructional theory is being developed, where students reinvent a classification scheme for chemically important point groups. In a pilot study, two mathematics education graduate students with limited knowledge of chemistry were given ball and stick models of water, ammonia, and ethane and were asked to develop and describe a procedure for efficiently and comprehensively finding all the symmetries of any given molecule. Video recordings of the students successfully completing this task and the corresponding inscriptions they made were interpreted using the emergent model heuristic in order to understand the evolution of the students’ model from model-of to model-for. Implications of these results on the development of the local instructional theory and for future experiments are also discussed.


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Book chapter published in It’s Just Math: Research on Students’ Understanding of Chemistry and Mathematics



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