Academic Exchange Quarterly      Fall   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  3

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An Air Quality TPSL Module for General Chemistry


Jack F. Eichler, Oxford College of Emory University


Eichler, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry in the Division of Natural Science and Mathematics.





This  article describes a way to teach general chemistry for majors and non-majors through the unsolved problem of air quality.   This study, conducted in introductory chemistry courses for non-science majors, is focused on the measurement of ground level ozone.  As part of this project, students have created ozone detectors, helped design a long-term study that monitors local ground-level ozone concentrations, collected ground-level ozone concentration data with area middle school students, and reported the results of this study to local civic and environmental organizations. 



During the early part of my professional career as an educator, my philosophy of teaching focused on demonstrating my enthusiasm for chemistry to the students.  The thought was that I could transfer my joy of the subject to the learner by overwhelming force.  If they saw how much I loved chemistry and realized how “cool” it was, how could they not become enchanted?  Perhaps in a way this may have worked; I believe I was considered a popular teacher by most of the students and they routinely did well on the end-of-course exams.  However, after a couple of years passed by, I sensed that small groups of students did not buy into my excitement.  This really disappointed me.  If some of my students were not learning to love chemistry, or at least beginning to appreciate it, then what were they taking away from my class? 


My philosophy of teaching shifted then to not only demonstrating how interesting chemistry was, but began to also concentrate on having my course provide a set of skills that my students could use later in their lives.  Even though they likely would not remember how to draw chemical structures or calculate the theoretical yield of a chemical reaction, perhaps they would take with them the ability to design a sound experiment or correctly analyze and interpret data.  Therefore, even if a student did not develop a passion for the subject matter, at least s/he would gain some practical skills in my class.  This approach helped provide a more meaningful reason to study chemistry, but I felt the general chemistry curriculum remained an abstract set of information for most students.  Something was still missing. 


When I arrived at Oxford for my first full time position in higher education, I was quickly made aware of how I could make chemistry real and not remote to my students’ lives:  Theory Practice Service Learning (TPSL).  One of my colleagues in the chemistry department had developed a lab module for the non-majors general chemistry course that required the students to complete a water quality study, and I gladly adopted this lab module into my non-majors introductory chemistry courses (Patrick 2003).  We did these lab activities with local middle school students in an effort to educate the local community about water quality, as well as provide our students with a mentoring opportunity.  This TPSL project was successful in making chemistry relevant to our students’ lives and seemed to stimulate their intellectual curiosity much more than our traditional laboratories.  In addition, the literature on service learning suggested that though TPSL activities do not necessarily “improve the ability of students to recall facts, it likely increases the ability to use evidence to support claims or to identify and solve complex problems (Ash 2005).”  It seemed that I had finally found that missing piece to my teaching philosophy. 


However, there were some limitations to the water quality study however.  Most of the water quality testing required the use of manufactured kits which did not clearly demonstrate the actual chemistry involved in the test, there was still some disconnection between the water quality at a local stream and the effect this might have on our students’ drinking water, and I was not sure this approach could easily be used in an introductory course for chemistry majors.


In an effort to address these problems, I began to think about how I could refine the TPSL module.  Luckily I stumbled across a paper by J.V. Seeley which described a simple method for measuring ground level ozone, the major component of photochemical smog (Seeley 2005).  I felt air quality was a problem that had a much more direct impact on the students (we could measure the quality of the air they actually breathed), and the method of detection reported by Seeley required the students to use many of the chemistry concepts and skills learned in an introductory course.  I decided this would be a convenient way to carry out TPSL activities in both majors and non-majors general chemistry. 


Described herein is a summary of how air quality has been used to frame the learning goals and outcomes in my general chemistry course for non-majors, the nature of the TPSL activities, an initial qualitative assessment of this program and how it has impacted student learning in our general chemistry courses, and why I feel it will be applicable in our chemistry courses for science majors.   



Focusing the Learning Goals on Air Quality

One of the arguments I have heard against implementing TPSL activities, especially among faculty who teach courses intended for science majors, is that the service or community outreach activities will infringe upon the successful completion of the canonical course content.  The appeal to framing the curricular content of our first semester general chemistry course around the issue of air quality lies in the fact the method reported by Seeley requires the students to apply most of the major concepts covered in this course.  Table 1 summarizes the major concepts covered in our “traditional” general chemistry, those covered in our “air quality” version of general chemistry, and those required to understand the concept of ground level ozone and how to complete the measurement of its concentration.


To see table-1, send email request to


It is clear that course content is not sacrificed, at least given the manner in which we teach general chemistry at Oxford College.  The only material that is not covered in the air quality version of our course is the unit on organic nomenclature.  This is a small sacrifice, as this is often not covered in our traditional course due to time constraints, plus this is material that will be thoroughly covered in more advanced chemistry courses.  I also note the fact that almost all of the major concepts in the course are required to complete the ground level ozone study.  The unit on thermochemistry is perhaps the farthest removed from the issue of air quality, but even this can be loosely tied to the ground level ozone project as one of the important chemical precursors to ground level ozone is produced in combustion reactions [1].  I will not elaborate further on the details of how the concepts in this course are needed to complete the ground level ozone project, but will note that the report by Seeley, et al. will provide the reader with a nice summary of most of these topics [2].


In order to frame the course around the issue of air quality, a problem-based case study was done the first week of class.  This case study was centered around a scenario in which someone blames their breathing problems on ground level ozone.  The students were required to identify the major issues in the case and generate questions that needed to be answered in order to resolve the problem.  These questions were then documented, and acted as the content learning goals for the remainder of the semester.  As the semester proceeded, the students were reminded about how each topic related to the problem of ground level ozone and how the specific content for each unit allowed them to answer some of the questions generated in the case study.  At the end of the semester, three weeks were devoted to the problem of ground level ozone.  The students completed research on the background information related to how ground level ozone forms, why it is a potential public health hazard, and how we were to measure it in lab.  We also did three labs where the students actually measured the concentration of ground level ozone on campus, and then all of the background information and new data were summarized and analyzed in a written report.    


Anecdotally, I have receive extremely positive feedback from the students, and representative comments from student reflective statements indicate that using this approach has been an effective way to engage the students in learning science (see Table 2).  Almost by consensus, comments indicate that this project was successful in helping the students achieve the course learning goals and a clear connection between chemistry and the students’ lives has been made.    


To see table-2, send email request to


TPSL Activities

In addition to simply framing the course around the topic of air quality, service and community outreach has been integrated into some sections of our general chemistry courses for non-majors.  One of the service components is modeled on what was previously done with the water quality lab modules (Patrick 2003).  We spent three lab periods with students from a local middle school and provided them with background information on ground level ozone.  Oxford students gave presentations explaining what ground level ozone is, why it is a potential public health concern, and how we measured it on campus.  The middle school students then returned for another meeting where they helped my students complete a ground level ozone measurement.  Finally, our students summarized the data and provided some general recommendations for what steps might need to be taken, if any, in order to maintain healthy air quality.


A second piece was added for the air quality study.  The students were given the option of completing volunteer activities with one of two local environmental organizations; Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful or The Center for Urban Planning and Preservation.  Students who completed eight hours of service outside of the classroom were given extra credit.  Most of the class completed this service requirement (14 out of 18 students), and most of them participated in the community awareness projects associated with Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful.  Only a few students completed these activities with The Center, which involved doing some basic background research regarding local traffic and development patterns.  Some of the student reports were also given to these organizations in an effort to publicize the results from the air quality study.           


Qualitative Assessment of the TPSL Activities


To see table-3, send email request to


Overall, the TPSL activities seemed to have a greater impact on perceived student

Learning and on student confidence in relating how science can be used to solve social issues.  The comparison of pre- and post-course surveys indicates that the TPSL version of the air quality course had a greater effect in achieving high levels of confidence in designing lab experiments, and confidence in understanding how science can be used to solve societal issues/problems.  It is clear that more students in the TPSL section had significantly improved confidence in designing lab experiments and understanding how science can be used to address societal issues (more students changed their response to 4 or 5 in the post-course survey for these questions; see Table 3).  It is noted however, that a large number of students in both courses made some gains, particularly in gaining confidence in designing lab experiments.  Representative results from the student reflective statements also indicate that the work done with the middle school students had a positive impact on student learning, though the volunteer work done outside of class seemed to have less value to the students (see Table 3).  As many of the students noted in their reflective statements, the work done in collaboration with the local middle school may have contributed to a deeper understanding of the major concepts and experimental design involved in the project.  This may have arisen due to the fact that my students are responsible for explaining the project, and demonstrating the specific lab techniques and calculations to the younger students.  The volunteer work with the local environmental agencies most likely had less impact on the students because there was less direct application of the chemistry concepts learned in class.     


Future work will involve doing a more rigorous statistical analysis of the current, and subsequent survey data, as well as evaluating the results of American Chemical Society (ACS) end-of-course examinations for students taking general chemistry for science majors.  The performance of our students will be compared to the at-large pool of ACS exam scores, and it is the hope that these future data will indicate that teaching the first semester general chemistry course with the air quality and/or TPSL component does not dilute the content covered in the course.  In fact, it is hypothesized this approach will reinforce the content. 



Teaching introductory chemistry through the unsolved problem of air quality has enabled me to make a strong connection between science and the students’ lives, without sacrificing important curricular components that teach chemistry concepts needed for future courses.  In addition, this approach has allowed me to teach non-majors “real chemistry.”  Though this course does not have the same depth of information as a major’s course, most of the fundamental chemistry concepts are retained, and by addressing the problem of ground level ozone as described here, the non-science majors are able to learn how a chemist would solve a problem. 


Results from a pre- and post-course survey, as well as free response reflective statements indicate that students feel they have achieved the course goals and made gains in acquiring new skills, particularly experimental design and using scientific knowledge to solve social problems.  Given these outcomes, I feel confident that this approach will prove to be an effective approach to teaching general chemistry for science majors, and that educators in all fields of science should consider teaching their introductory courses through an unsolved social problem [3]. 



[1] The formation of ground level ozone is dependent on the presence of nitrogen oxide compounds (NOx), which are primarily emitted from automobiles and fossil fuel combustion power plants.  There are a variety of resources that describe in detail the formation of ground level ozone, but the reader may want to consult the reference book, Encyclopedia of global change:  environmental change and human society (Andrew Goudie, editor, 2002, Oxford University Press, New York, New York) as a starting point.


[2] The journal article by Seeley, et al. gives a detailed description of the aqueous chemical reactions involved in measuring ground level ozone, how standard solutions are prepared and used to determine the amount of ozone detected, and how the ideal gas equation is used to calculate the moles of air sampled.


[3] For more information on this approach to teaching science, the reader is referred to (SENCER = Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities).



H.R. Patrick, M.M. Ali, and B.B. Harmon, “Forming bonds:  Chemistry and community.”  Abstracts of Papers, 225th ACS National Meeting, New Orleans, LA, March 2003. 


S.L. Ash, P.H. Clayton, and M.P. Atkinson, “Integrating reflection and assessment to capture and improve student learning.”  Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2005, pg. 49-60. 


J.V. Seeley, et al., “A simple method for measuring ground level ozone in the atmosphere.”  Journal of Chemical Education, 2005, 82(2), pg. 282-285.