Printer Friendly

The making of the world of chemistry.

The seed was planted in 1984 at a B'nai Brith dinner where Hilda Moskowitz, a senior project officer with the Annenberg Center for Public Broadcasting, asked Isadore Adler if he might be interest in developing a telecourse in chemistry. Adler, retired from Goddard Space Center and now teaching at the University of Maryland, College Park, agreed to think about it. Although I did not meet Izzy until several months later, as I learned to know and love him, I can easily imagine his response. He probably kicked the idea around for a few minutes while taking his daily swim (he was a man of action and could not sit still for very long), became so intrigued with its novelty and challenge that he was committed even before he was consciously aware of it. From the very beginning, he wanted the series to have a universal, or at least a global, theme that would convey the message chemistry is the central science and the world as we know it, is a chemical world The seed began to germinate when Izzy invited Nava ben Zvi, on leave from the Hebrew University and teaching at College Park, to join him as codirector of the project. Together they recruited Gilbert Castellan, who was also a member of the College Park faculty and the author of a very successful physical chemistry textbook. Two additional team members were recruited by Nava at the Bienniel Conference on Chemical Education in Storres, CT. in August 1984. One, a high-school teacher (St. Albans School in Washington, DC), Mary Elizabeth Key, and the second, a community college teacher, myself.

Our first task was to prepare a preproposal outlining the scope of the project and justifying the need for a telecourse in chemistry for nonscience majors. This was quickly accomplished, and by later August our first official document was submitted to Annenberg under the not very catchy title, Chemistry. Systems, Processes and Relevance. We then want back to our normal duties as chemical educators and awaited the word from Annenberg.

It came in December 1984. Our preproposal had been approved and we were invited to submit a full proposal. This included a detailed budget for the production of two pilot films and accompanying written materials; text, laboratory exercises, student study guide and teachers' guide. We worked on this throughout the spring, summer and fall of 1985. Except for the summer, Nava was in Israel and our contact with her was by mail, and, if urgent, telephone. After many lengthy and heated discussions, we settled on two topics for the pilot films; the mole concept and polymers. We chose the mole concept to demonstrate how we would handle the presentation of an abstract theoretical topic that is an essential tool for chemists and, at the same time, unique to chemistry-counting by weighing. Since the discovery and fabrication of synthetic polymers is one of the great success stories of modern chemistry, and because we believed the times in which we are now living would someday be known as the Polymer Age, we chose polymers as the topic for the second film.

At the same time, we set out to find an executive producer experienced in the production of educational films, a good background in science and a great deal of creativity. The producer would also have to provide us with a budget projection for the pilot films and find a company to produce them. It was at this point that we first became aware of the many layers of interpretation that had to come between us, the professional classroom teachers, and the final film that was to deliver our message. The time pressures of television production were awesome, even to us who, as classroom teachers and published authors, had once considered ourselves experts at meeting deadlines.

Our first proposal was rejected, but with the suggestion that it be revised and resubmitted. We took this as an encouraging sign and forged ahead.

The producer with whom we had worked on the first proposal withdrew and we turned to our project director at the Annenberg Foundation, Hyman Fields, for help. He introduced us to Richard Thomas, a man with all of the necessary prerequisites to succeed in the task at hand, and to Steve Rabin, president of the Educational Film Center. Thus began the collaboration that produced not only the college series now known as the World of Chemistry, but also, under the directorship of Mary Beth and funding from NSF, the high-school version marketed in the fall of 1990.

In March 1986, our revised proposal for the pilot films was accepted and serious planning and production began. Critical decisions that would set the style and organization of the films were made. We started a search for the host for the series; someone who would not only provide a bridge between the films, but more fundamentally, put the topics in context while also giving the series a unique perspective on the role of chemistry in our lives. Our search came to an end when Roald Hoffmann, professor of chemistry at Cornell University and Nobel Laureate, agreed to join the project as series host and sixth member of the academic team. A second search for a series demonstrator, someone with good audience appeal, led us to Donald Showalter, professor of chemistry at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.

At this point I must make a personal comment on these selections. When I joined the project, one of my stated goals was to take advantage of what I considered a unique opportunity to use minority persons and women as role models. While I enthusiastically supported Hoffmann and Showalter's selection as host and demonstrator, respectively, I believe the series would have benefitted greatly if one of their positions had been filled by an African American or a woman. Since two white males had been selected for the two leading roles in the series, I felt it essential that when individuals were selected to be interviewed, minority persons and women be amply represented. Unfortunately, this did not happen. There were many reasons for this. Because of our very tight budget there was often not enough time to find appropriate individuals. In addition, many interviewers were recommended by the companies and research institutes whose activities had been selected to illustrate real-world applications of chemistry. This gave the producers little or no opportunity to consider the issue of minority representation. Overall, we did better at finding female role models than minorities. On the whole, I feel that we missed a very important opportunity to demonstrate that science in general, and chemistry in particular is not an activity exclusively pursued by white males.

When we chose two programmes widely separated in the series sequence, we created a problem for ourselves. The Mole, programme 11, came relatively early in the series and The Age of Polymers came towards the end, programme 22. At this time we had only a general sense, based on our experience with traditional chemistry courses, of what the sequence of topics necessary to prepare students to understand these two programs would be. At the same time, we did not have time to do more than develop a bare outline of what we would have taught before we got to programme 11 and between programmes 11 and 22. At Nava's suggestion, we slid around this problem by introducing each programme in the accompanying Viewing Guide with a section called,'You Already Know'. This section listed the concepts and ideas that students should review before viewing each programme. The pilots and accompanying written material were developed in the summer of 1986 and submitted to Annenberg in the fall. For the first time we were paid for our efforts.

The prototype for a new life-form, a television course in chemistry, centered around 26 half-hour films, had been developed and was ready for appraisal. As required by Annenberg, the pilot films were given a formal evaluation at a number of schools, and a report and detailed analysis were submitted to the centre. On the basis of this evaluation, in December 1986, we were informed our proposal for the complete series had been accepted. It had taken two and a half years for our delicate seedling to take hold and now it was ready to be nurtured into a full-grown plant. As we were struggling to create continuity between the two widely separated pilot films, we consoled ourselves by agreeing that we would never again work in such a haphazard manner. We were certain that once the project was approved we would have the time to develop the programmes in sequence. Ah, the bliss of ignorance. Though Annenberg awarded us what seemed a huge amount of money and required that we raise a substantial sum in matching funds, the total broke down to a budget of only US$125,000 per film. The way film-making operates financially, money dictates how much time can be spent on a project. In our case, this meant that the remaining 24 programmes had to be produced in 18 months. Consequently, a number of producers would have to be hired and each assigned about six programmes. While the programmes assigned to each producer were in sequence, the academic team was not working in sequence. For example, during the week of March 7 to March 11, 1988, we were working on various stages of programmes 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, and 18. Obviously, our dream of working on one programme at a time and thereby assuring that the final product would represent an orderly and well integrated series had quickly been shattered.

In addition, we had to establish general guidelines for the design of graphics long before we knew exactly what these graphics would be. In short, we academics were groping in the dark, and at times felt very much out of our element. We knew that teaching chemistry through films would require innovation and experimentation and were eager to explore the possibilities. However, we were not familiar with the rules that guided the filmmakers and in the conflicts that arose, often found ourselves clinging, in self-defense, to the tried and true methods we used in our classrooms. One serious conflict we encountered revolved around the amount of time required to present and develop a new idea. In film and video there seems to be a 'four-minute rule', dictating that four minutes is the maximum time to be spent on any single topic. Graphics, because of their cost and also because of what I call the frenetic' factor, were frequently limited to around one to two minutes. I have yet to see any hard evidence supporting these rules which are, I suspect, based mainly on commercial, not educational productions. I do know that in Great Britain things move at a more leisurely pace. There, as much as six minutes can be devoted to a single idea. As the producers were either chemists or teachers, we kept reminding them to set the pace by considering how long it would take for them to understand what was going on when seeing the material for the first time.

Another problem to which we had to adjust, involved the footage used to fill in behind segments of narrative. Ideally, we would have liked to film sequences that explained or amplified what was being said. However, we did not have the funds for this and so we had to make do with footage that was in the public domain and therefore could be used free of charge. As a result, I feel it necessary to warn my students that not all of the pictures shown in a film are relevant to the lesson.

Another problem, one which first became apparent when we were developing the pilot films, was the number of people through whom the chemical ideas we were trying to communicate had to be passed. On the one hand, because there was no second chance to reach the students, as there is in a classroom, it was good to have people who knew little or no chemistry in the pipeline. The check for technical details was provided by an outstanding advisory board. On the other hand, it was time consuming and at times frustrating to have to filter the lessons through individuals, some of whom had little or no background in chemistry. At times I felt as though I were communicating through an interpreter who could not fully understand what I was trying to say. We felt that, since we were all both educators and published authors (two of us of textbooks), it would have been less frustrating and time consuming if we could have eliminated the writer-middleman and worked directly with the producer. It was the producer who had to understand the chemistry because he ultimately wrote the script.

These were but a few of the nagging problems with which we learned to live. As might be expected, when five or six people, each accustomed to complete control over her or his own classroom, try to reach a consensus on how to best present a given concept and to what depth, conflict can arise. Although we took great pains to understand and be tolerant of the differences among us and our students, occasionally perspective was lost. This invariably happened when the disagreement touched on a strongly-held opinion or belief. However, such lapses were not too frequent and we each took them in stride.

It might be informative to describe the organization and the steps involved in developing a programme. On the production side of the process, the executive producer Thomas, developed a schedule for each producer and each programme. On the academic side, two academic team members were assigned primary responsibility for a programme; we had initially selected the programmes we wanted to work on. At the same time, two or three advisory board members were assigned to follow and critique the progress of a programme through each developmental stage. Next, the entire academic team met to develop the basic outline of each programme, after which the team member or members assigned to that programme, prepared a guide for the assigned writer. This included references, suggestions for graphics, interviews, real-world examples, and demonstrations. The writer's guide was then reviewed and usually revised by the academic team. After the revision, the writer's guide was sent to the writer who prepared the first treatment or narrative guide. The treatment, and usually the first draft of Roald Hoffmann's script, was reviewed, first by the academic team members in charge of the programme and then by the entire academic team. When the treatment had been approved, meetings between the program producer, academic team member, or members, and graphic designers were scheduled with Circuit Studios, the graphics house.

I tend to think in pictures, and so found working with the graphics designers one of the most interesting and satisfying aspects of the development process. The graphics designers were excellent, but since they were not chemists, we found it necessary to have an academic team member present when the graphics were being developed. There were many critical decisions that required an understanding of chemistry and could not have been anticipated beforehand. These judgements could not be left to the artist. The collaboration was essential since our tight budget and the resulting tight schedule would not allow for any but the most minor corrections.

At the same time, site visits and interviews were filmed. Footage to fill in behind the narrative was being collected and the producer was writing the final timed script for the programme. These factors were then pulled together to form the rough cut. I will never forget the first rough cut I ever saw. Although we had been warned about how rough this first draft of the video would be, I was not prepared for what I saw. I remember wondering why I had become involved in this project and how I would ever be able to face my colleagues t Montgomery College when they saw what we had produced.

Comments and suggested changes to the rough cut were incorporated into the fine cut which was then polished to the final version by the academic team and producer. After a few films, the academic team learned to interpret the rough cut. We had become seasoned film makers.

As if all this were not enough to keep track of, there was still the matter of Donald Showalter and the demonstrations. Selection and testing of the demonstrations for each programme using them were included in the responsibilities of the academic team members. These were written into the writer's packet, treatments, and finally the script. Every few months, Showalter would spend a grueling week at College Park filming the demonstration segments of as many as four or five films. One or more of the academic team members were assigned to help with the demonstrations, and to listen to what he was saying so that no mistakes slipped through. It took a while to learn to concentrate on what Showalter was saying and not become distracted by everything else that was going on. These were intense sessions and I shall never cease admiring Don for the patience and stamina he showed when he had to repeat a particular segment over and over, and sometimes over, again.

The most memorable session I was involved in was the filming of the segment demonstrating properties of the alkali metals for the film on the periodic table. We had collected just about all of the samples of these metals that the chemistry department held. Cesium and rudidium, sealed in glass tubes, were placed on the demonstration table, and bottles containing generous chunks of lithium, sodium and potassium, stored under kerosine, were also on display. Showalter had removed chunks of lithium, sodium and potassium from their containers and had put them into glass dishes. He then made fresh cuts on each in turn to show the metallic surfaces and rates at which the metal surfaces were oxidized. After that, he cut off smaller pieces and used them to show the differences in the rates of reaction with water. As I saw the sizes of the samples he was cutting, I remember thinking that 1 would never have used such large pieces, especially of sodium and potassium. There was no problem with the lithium and sodium, but when he dropped the potassium into the water, sparks began to fly. It was quite exciting, especially when one of the sound barriers caught fire. Fortunately, the flame was quickly put out. The cameraman had calmly stuck to his job and filmed the whole thing As I was driving home that evening, I began to think of what could have happened if we had not put that fire out so quickly. I thought of all of those alkali metals sitting there on the demonstration table, and imagined what could have happened if it had gotten hot enough to ignite the kerosine, or if the sealed tubes holding the cesium and rubidium had broken, or if the sprinkler system had been set off, or all of the above. 1, for one, shall never forget this particular episode in the making of The World of Chemistry.

Looking back at the entire process, it is fascinating to see how each contributor to the finished product added his or her unique touch to the final product, and how, by some miracle, this seemingly disorderly process produced a set of films, a number of which turned out to be greater than the sum of their parts.

Finally, since this is my story, I want to thank Montgomery College for its generous contribution to this project. During the early stages when we were preparing the proposal, it gave me a reduced teaching load. The demonstration section of the pilot film on the mole concept was filmed in one of our laboratories at no cost to the project. When the project was finally approved by Annenberg, I was given two years of professional leave with full salary and benefits.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Chemical Institute of Canada
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:telecourse in chemistry for college nonscience majors
Author:Schumm, Margot K.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:3344
Previous Article:Communications as part of the core engineering curriculum.
Next Article:Raman spectroscopy in teaching organic chemistry.
Topics:


Related Articles
The purpose of national chemistry week.
Analytical chemistry in Canada: an historical outline.
The 21st International Chemistry Olympiad (1989).
National chemistry week festivities varied; Ottawa section provides something for all ages.
Some exploits in chemical education and the history of science: contributions from a small college.
Awards Night in Toronto rewards many. (Student News).
C3 conference to be held in Calgary. (Student News).
Fruits of chemistry.
Top of the list: wonders never cease. Chemical wonders especially. Can we remind the public of how wonderful chemistry can be? Can we attract...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters