#IHeartChemistryNCSU: free choice, content, and elements of science communication as the framework for an introductory organic chemistry project

Bram H. Frohock a, Samantha T. Winterrowd b and Maria T. Gallardo-Williams *c
aDepartment of Chemistry, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8204, USA. E-mail: bhfrohoc@ncsu.edu; Web: http://www.twitter.com/BHFrohock
bDepartment of Industrial & Systems Engineering, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8204, USA. E-mail: stwinter@ncsu.edu
cDepartment of Chemistry, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8204, USA. E-mail: Maria_Gallardo@ncsu.edu; Web: http://www.twitter.com/Teachforaliving

Received 13th July 2017 , Accepted 2nd November 2017

First published on 2nd November 2017

Students in a large introductory organic chemistry class were given the freedom to choose an organic compound of interest and were challenged to develop an educational object (physical or digital) designed to be shared with the broader public via social media. Analysis of the project results shows that most students appreciated the open nature of the assignment, and engaged in self-regulated learning by reflecting and improving on their educational object design along each step of the project. Subjects varied widely depending on the students’ personal interests, and many different educational objects were produced and shared using diverse social media outlets. As a result of this project, students reported positive outcomes including increased interest in organic chemistry and science in general as well as the acquisition of practical skills such as science communication and visual representation of science. These skills were perceived by students as being beneficial for future professional endeavors. This report describes the design and outcomes of the project, including the choice of subjects, representations, and social media channels.


Motivating students to participate and engage in an organic chemistry class requires the use of every pedagogical technique in an instructor's toolbox and even techniques outside of that typical realm, such as the use of social media. When the class is a large section, one-semester course geared towards non-majors, the challenge is magnified by the many diverse interests of the large student population, and the abundance of material that needs to be covered. In general, a static lecture-based approach has been widely shown to be ineffective (Arum, 2010) and the desire to replace it with an inclusive active-learning or inquiry-based environment has been the subject of much interest (National Research Council, 2012). However, regardless of the degree of pedagogical intervention, student interest and long-term engagement remains elusive and highly variable (Bolte et al., 2013).

One strategy to enhance student engagement is to introduce a class project that allows each student to choose the topic that they want to focus on (Hidi and Renninger, 2006), while at the same time fostering critical and creative thinking (Carson, 2015). The project described in this paper was designed to attract the attention of a group of students with very different backgrounds, majors, and interests, and to provide all students in the introductory organic chemistry class with an opportunity to think critically and to express those interests creatively within the context of the course learning outcomes. To that end, students were prompted early in the course to select an organic compound that they were personally or professionally interested in, and to spend time for the rest of the semester following a series of assignment prompts that would enable them to create an educational object regarding their chosen compound that could be shared with the wider public using available social media channels. A peer review component was built into the project, to ensure small group interactions between students in such a large course (over 170 students).

This assignment was presented to students in CH220, an introductory organic chemistry class (one-semester survey course) that is part of the North Carolina State University TH!NK Program. TH!NK is an initiative designed to cultivate students’ higher order skills in critical and creative thinking. In TH!NK courses, students explore disciplinary content through a lens of critical and creative thinking, taking ownership of their own learning (Academic and Student Affairs, 2017; Carson, 2015; Halpern, 1998; Miri et al., 2007).

The main goal of this assignment was to encourage students to choose their own topic, think critically about it, and display it in a creative way. A secondary goal was to incorporate a peer review component that could be completed asynchronously in order to (a) receive peer feedback prior to the completion of the assignment and (b) share information with other members of the class in a format that required detailed and thoughtful attention. The final goal of the project was to introduce the students to the importance of social media in science communication, using best practices to reach the intended audience, which in this case was mainly expected to be their friends and peers in the class.

Theoretical framework

The idea of an educational object in this study was modelled after the work of Friesen (2010). In this context, educational, or knowledge objects are described as reusable curriculum components and materials that could hold out the promise of easy and low-cost multimedia course creation; the materials generated in this course could be used in future iterations of the same class. Such an approach has been evaluated and found to be helpful as long as it is aligned with the learning objectives of the course and has advantages that include giving the students the ability to self-pace (Kay and Knaack, 2007; Alonso et al., 2008).

Learning objects are discreet; each learning object deals with a limited and specific amount of knowledge. They are also self-contained, so each object must contain enough information to give an overview of the subject. To create a good learning object students need to be provided with a strong instructional design that includes the desired learning objectives and checkpoints along the way so that progress can be assessed during the creation process (Alonso et al., 2008). Allowing students the freedom to choose an element or compound to work on is an approach that has been around for years (Slocum, 2009; Musgrave and Dandekar, 2010; Kadnikova, 2013). This project was different because it incorporated elements of free choice of subject, as well as representation, and combined them with the end goal of producing a shareable peer-reviewed educational object. Students were allowed to choose their desired mode or representation, but were asked to do so with the purpose of creating a robust educational object in the end. The rubric clearly delineated the need for critical choices and clear language, and there were requirements for reflection at each individual step, which were incorporated into the project in order to foster self-regulated learning. The inclusion of a peer evaluation in chemistry classes is not a new idea (Goodman and Bean, 1983; Wenzel, 2007; Kadnikova, 2013); the novelty of this approach was to incorporate a formative peer review prior to the completion of the project, allowing the students time to make changes as suggested by the reviewers, and doing so outside of class in order to preserve the use of class time for content-oriented tasks.

This project's goals can be aligned with the theoretical framework of self-regulated learning (Zimmerman, 1998, 2002). Self-regulated learning breaks down the learning process into three phases: the forethought phase, the performance phase, and the self-reflection phase. The forethought phase, in this case, involved all the preliminary thinking required prior to the production of the learning object, including the draft design of the object and any required literature search steps. The performance phase involved the production of the learning object (either a physical or digital object) as well as the generation of a social media construct suitable for sharing. This phase required a clear understanding of the product being generated and shared, and may have prompted the learner to circle back to the forethought phase as needed. Finally, the self-reflection phase involved thinking about the object generated, and possible improvements. By building reflection steps into several checkpoints along the project, students were encouraged to use self-regulated learning in an iterative manner, which lead to an improved performance. The early peer feedback design on this study encourages self-regulated learning by making students evaluate the contributions of others mid-project. This last phase places value on the idea of reflecting and revising, not just based on the perceived quality of their individual work, but also as a part of a larger community. Students were then encouraged to think of appropriate ways in which their educational objects could be shared with their existing or potential social media audience, while attempting to generate positive interactions (Whittington et al., 2014; Baker, 2017).

Dabbagh and Kitsantas (2012) have described a framework for using social media to support self-regulated learning that takes Zimmerman's work and expands it to encompass the students’ ability to create personal learning environments (Dabbagh and Kitsantas, 2012) by using the sharing tools available in modern social media platforms. Their model describes three levels of interactivity. In level 1 students engage in personal information management, which is related to the self-generation of content via the use of blogs, wikis, online calendars, personal online journals, or other media resources. Level 2 deals with social interaction and collaboration, and the authors encourage the use of social media for sharing or collaborative activities such as commenting on a blog or wiki. Finally, level 3 describes information aggregation and management; a stage in which students can use social media to take information from levels 1 and 2 and use it to refine their understanding by reflecting on their own learning process and refine the products generated in stages 1 and 2.

The class project's end goal of developing and posting an educational object is related to the development of a personal learning space, and it follows Dabbagh and Kitsantas’ model. Initially students are asked to define their compound of interest and to design a unique educational object to showcase it. This first part of the project requires extensive information management and the use of on-line sources to shape and inform the design. In order to facilitate this stage, the class instructor provided access to online resources such as the Makerspace facilities website and other databases and websites that contain useful chemical information on chemical compounds. The activities that followed, requiring the students to peer review the work of others on-line relate to the second level, and brought in an element of social interaction. In addition, an informal social learning environment was provided throughout the semester in order to facilitate the self-regulated learning of the students while also providing useful feedback to incorporate into their educational objects. The third level of this theoretical framework recommends that instructors encourage students in synthesizing or aggregating information from levels 1 and 2 of the pedagogical framework and using such information to improve the developing content.

Due to the relationship between the first and second levels of Dabbagh and Kitsantas’ pedagogical framework and the self and peer reflective aspects of the class project, the third level of their theoretical approach matches the description of how the assignment was carried out. All of the information obtained from the peer-review and after completing the self-reflection activities were expected to be incorporated into the student's final social media post.

There is little empirical evidence that supports the claim of social media being a beneficial tool in education (Tess, 2013). However, this assignment is an example in which it is possible to qualitatively determine the impact it had on the students due to its reflective and self-guided nature. In addition, the quantitative analysis of the types and number of social interactions can lead to a more focused approach for deciding which platforms would be the most used and the most beneficial. Furthermore, the set of data collected from this assignment will serve as a useful foundation for designing future control experiments designed to quantitatively and statistically determine the correlation between the use of social media in a specific context and the students’ performance and engagement.

Components of the assignment

Students were asked to choose an organic compound that interested them for their project. Given no prior molecular information, they were required to complete an information form on their chosen compound, including the CAS number, cost, molecular formula, and structure, along with other physical properties. This information form mentions resources like Scifinder, CHEMnetBASE, Sigma-Aldrich, and a link to the North Carolina State University library page containing more help with locating the required information. In addition, students were provided an instructional video with step by step instructions on how to search the chemical literature (North Carolina State University, 2016). Next, students were required to submit a proposal form detailing their motivations for choosing their particular compound and their plans for representing it and sharing it via social media. In the submission form, students were asked to submit their final representation as a picture or link, and to reflect about any problems they had experienced with their representations. The final step of the project was to share it on social media, using one of the approved social media channels (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, or Tumblr; Facebook was not considered suitable due to the membership requirements in order to view content).

Students reflected on the project in two different ways, as a peer-review and a self-reflection. In the peer-review phase, students were tasked with providing feedback for three of their peers’ submitted unfinished projects. They were asked to especially consider how accurate the representations were, how the representation related to the chosen compound, and how aesthetically pleasing the overall project was. Students were given the option to revise their projects based on this peer feedback for their final submissions. In their self-reflection forms, they explained their choice of representation, and how and why their form of representation may have changed throughout the project process. Students were asked if the peer-review had any impact on their final representation, and whether they thought their project was appropriate for their class. Students described any risks they took, and their favorite and least favorite aspects of the assignment. Subjects varied widely depending on the students’ interests, and many different educational objects were produced, using diverse forms of representation, and shared using approved social media outlets.

Our primary research goal was to determine why and how our undergraduate students would represent an organic molecule of their own choosing, think critically about it, and display it in a creative way in the context of making a shareable educational object that could be posted on social media. As part of this process we incorporated a peer review component to be completed asynchronously in order to (a) receive peer feedback prior to the completion of the assignment and (b) share information with other members of the class in a format that required detailed and thoughtful attention. A second research goal was to analyze submitted self-reflection forms to see whether there was any instance of self-reported positive outcomes, self-regulated learning, or peer-regulated learning. Lastly, the third research goal of this study was to collect and analyze the social media response data in order to gain insight on how effective the educational objects were at generating a positive response in terms of concrete social interactions. This study is self-contained, but could perhaps be used for future organic chemistry classes as a useful exercise in science communication, to highlight the importance of using best practices to reach the intended audience, or even to further study the potential for social media to become a platform for student development within the context of a chemistry class.


Course description

Introduction to Organic Chemistry (CH220) at North Carolina State University was used for this study. CH220 is a semester-long course with two lecture meetings per week (each 1 h 15 min long) that has as a co-requisite a lab course with one lab meeting every other week (2 h 45 min long). It is a standalone course that is offered for students in majors that do not require the traditional two-semester organic chemistry sequence. Examples of typical students include those majoring in agricultural sciences, civil engineering, environmental sciences and technology, food science, horticulture, materials science and engineering, and wildlife management, among others. There were 175 students enrolled in the course (N = 175 students) in one lecture section, and 172 complete projects were submitted. Data collection for this study was conducted during the Fall semester of 2016 (August–December), with the approval of the university's Institutional Review Board (IRB). Consent was obtained from the students at the beginning of the semester to collect class materials and content posted on-line for research. Participation in the study was voluntary; all students enrolled in the class consented to participate.

Assignment description

The project was briefly introduced in class during the first lecture of the semester, and the main learning objective described was to be able to accurately depict any organic molecule, of their choice, in a creative manner and communicate their molecule representation via a social media platform. Detailed instructions were posted on a website exclusively dedicated to the project (Gallardo-Williams, 2016a) as well as on the class management system (Moodle), with links to on-line submission forms for each step, resources, and relevant deadlines. Table 1 summarizes the steps of the assignment as presented to students.
Table 1 Components of the assignment
Part 1 Choose an organic compound of personal or professional interest
Part 2 Complete information form with bibliography
Part 3 Choose a way to represent the compound (see Resources) and complete the proposal form
Part 4 Complete the educational object and submit it using the submission form
Part 5 Peer review objects in small groups of four students and submit reviews using the review form
Part 6 Complete revisions/reflection form with updated bibliography
Part 7 Share object on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube) using #IHeartChemistryNCSU

Resources and grading rubric

An online resource site was created for the class, linked from the project website, with examples and links describing possible project ideas and desirable outcomes. Students in the class were given access to the resources available at the North Carolina State University Libraries Makerspace (Anon, 2017, DiMonte et al., 2017) and provided with training on the safe use of the Makerspace tools as needed such as how to generate/manipulate 3D printing files. Furthermore, they were informed about software like Spartan and TinkerCad for additional support with the 3D images or 3D printing files. 3D printing was made available to students at no cost, while other applications such as laser engraving and laser cutting required a small fee to cover the cost of the materials. Digital support was provided for students interested in the creation of digital objects (video, websites, and online content). All activities related to the project were done by the students asynchronously and no class time was taken up by this endeavor. The project was quite flexible, yet rigorous, since it was a graded component (6% of final class grade). Rubrics were made available to students on the website to ensure consistent expectations, such as structural accuracy, and grading across a large variety of outcomes. Table 2 shows the grading rubric as it was presented to students.
Table 2 Grading rubric
Category Score of 0–5 Score of 5–10 Score of 10–20
Effort Minimal time and effort spent on preparation of project. Sloppiness apparent in various aspects of project. Overall appearance not acceptable. Adequate time and effort spent on preparation of the project. Some degree of sloppiness apparent. Overall appearance is acceptable. Project is extremely neat. Much effort spent on the appearance of the project. Attractive and organized.
Information/context Chemistry references or information mainly inaccurate. No context provided for the compound. Chemistry references or information in project has minor errors or mistakes. Context is partially explained. Chemistry references or information in project are totally accurate. Context is explained in detail.
Creativity/originality Project lacks creativity and originality. Inadequate thought behind the project. Project shows some signs of creativity or originality. Project is very creative and original. Relationship between organic compound and project is outstanding and very clear. Unique approach to problem.
Impact via social media Project is not shared or shared in sites that are not widely accessible. Impact appears to be neutral. Project is shared in a limited format/limited accessibility. Project is widely shared and has a wide impact.
Peer review participation No participation in peer review process. Limited participation in peer review process. Student participates in peer review and gives constructive and timely feedback.
Final reflection The reflection does not address the student's thinking and/or learning. The reflection explains the student's thinking about his/her own learning processes The reflection explains the student's own thinking and learning processes, as well as implications for future learning.

Content analysis

The final reflections of work for each individual student were used for content analysis and coding using MS Word. The data analysis stage began, as recommended by Creswell (2014) by a combination of thematic coding and summarizing content analysis. Both manifest and latent content (i.e., words as written by participants as well as their underlying meaning or significance) were examined and interpreted within the coding frame. To ensure qualitative reliability, the research team employed reliability procedures recommended by Gibbs (2007). Categories were defined as exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Where areas of overlap were found, the coding scheme was reconsidered and refined using constant-comparative method (Glaser and Strauss, 2009) (Table 3).
Table 3 Content analysis coding scheme
Category Code Description
Predetermined Feelings about the project or the class Statements indicate that the student had a positive disposition towards the project and its outcomes, or that the student had a positive attitude towards the class as a result of the project. Negative feelings were also considered.
Creativity Statements indicate that the student considered the project to be creative, or to allow creative expression. Some students also appreciated being exposed to the creativity of other members of the class.
Emergent Changes Statements indicate that the student changed their initial representation idea. Change might have been due to peer review, or to a shift in the student's view of their project.
Ability to share Statements indicate that the student enjoyed sharing their project using social media. Some students also appreciated seeing other projects using the class hashtag.
Perception of risk Statements pertain to student's perception of risks taken during the production of their educational object. Students were asked to think creatively and produce high quality, shareable work, which was perceived as risky in some instances.

Social media

The social media component required students to share their projects on one of the approved social media channels (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, or Tumblr) using the hashtag #IHeartChemistryNCSU. Students were able to use their existing personal accounts or new accounts with a more professional focus created for the project. Participants also had the option of asking the class instructor to share their project on Twitter on their behalf, under conditions of anonymity, if they were not familiar with the use of social media or were concerned about privacy issues. Instructions for sharing on social media were provided, including reminders on the importance of refraining from endorsing the use of illegal drugs and the need to provide accurate information in a responsible manner. Facebook was not considered an approved channel, since it requires registration to view posted content. Many students shared their projects on Facebook in addition to the class requirement. Students posted their representations on their outlet of choice and the level of social media engagement of each post was recorded after the class was completed. Data was only collected on posts to the approved social media channels using the class hashtag. The data collected corresponds to the various forms of engagement each outlet allows (likes, retweets, replies, comments, or views). Pictures or relevant links of each project and a brief description provided by the students were anonymized and archived and are available for viewing in an open access format (Gallardo-Williams, 2016b).


Students in the class were offered three elements of free choice for the creation of an educational object. The first element was the selection of an organic compound that interested them, which had to be justified with a short reflection. The self-reported motivations for the individual compound choices are summarized in Fig. 1. The most common reason students gave for choosing their compound was just general interest or name-recognition, with the second-most common reason being professional interest (students had worked with the compound during internships or jobs, or the compound related to the students’ majors). About 19% of students chose a compound that they or someone close to them used regularly, with 12% being as a medical application. Compounds that were known due to an association with a personal interest of hobby were also popular (around 13%), as were those compounds associated with food (12.5%). Some compounds were chosen by more than one student, and as a result more than one educational object was generated for those compounds, as can be seen on the outcomes webpage (Gallardo-Williams, 2016a, 2016b).
image file: c7rp00132k-f1.tif
Fig. 1 Self-reported motivation for compound choice.

The second choice students had in the project was how to represent their compound in order to create their educational object. Students were encouraged to find a representation that was related to their compound choice, keeping in mind the long-term goal of sharing pictures/links of the finished product using social media channels. Most students in the class chose to produce 3D representations of the compound's structure, 2D representations of the compound's structure, or graphic design objects. Fig. 2 shows the break-down of the types of representation students chose.

image file: c7rp00132k-f2.tif
Fig. 2 Types of representation.

Students used a wide variety of different media for their representations, the most common being 3D printing material and food-related items. Students were given free access to North Carolina State University's 3D printing services for this project, and 22% of students chose to 3D print a model of their compound. Of those that represented their compounds using graphics, 50% made a poster and 36% made a webpage. Fig. 3 summarizes the representation media choices of the students in the class.

image file: c7rp00132k-f3.tif
Fig. 3 Representation media.

The third degree of freedom, the choice of social media and the creation of a shareable version of the educational object, was slightly limited due to practical considerations like privacy, yet there was a great amount of variability within the given choices. Table 4 highlights the distribution of platform choice while Fig. 4 displays the amount and type of response to each of these posts. Not all the students in the class opted to post their work on social media. Out of the students that posted on social media (155 students), 56% of students chose to post on Twitter, 27% of students chose to post on Instagram, and 14% of students chose to post on Pinterest. YouTube was the least used platform, which made up the last 3% of students. There were 17 students that posted on two or more media outlets, most commonly adding a post on Facebook in addition to the post required for the class. About 32% of all social media interactions, (interactions on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube) were likes on Twitter and approximately 48% were likes on Instagram. Twitter replies and retweets made up around 10% of the interactions with the student's post, and the Instagram comments (3%) and YouTube views (7%) made up nearly all other interactions out of 929 total interactions as of May, 2017. For simplicity in the data collection process, social media interactions were only collected from Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Table 4 Distribution of social media platform choice
Social media platform Percentage of students using the platform (%)
Twitter 56
Instagram 27
Pinterest 14
Youtube 3

image file: c7rp00132k-f4.tif
Fig. 4 Social media interactions in response to a student's object post.

Some students expressed privacy concerns that prevented them from posting their educational objects to social media channels. In those cases, the instructor shared those posts on her own Twitter account, while preserving the anonymity of the students. Such posts were included in the total number of interactions shown on Fig. 4.

The distribution of social media activity for each individual post and the distribution of social media activity for different grade percentiles was tabulated, and it provided a few insights. First, on Fig. 5, less than half of the posts had any social interaction at all and a majority of the posts had one to ten social interactions. As far as the relationship between student performance and the level of social interactions for each post, Fig. 6 indicates a positive correlation. The students that were in the higher grade percentiles, especially the 90–100% range, had the highest level of social interactions on their posts collectively.

image file: c7rp00132k-f5.tif
Fig. 5 Distribution of social media activity for each post.

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Fig. 6 Relative frequency of social interaction by grade percentiles.

Table 5 summarizes the results of the content analysis performed on the students’ final reflections. The students were asked to write and submit reflective pieces that summarized their experience regarding the production of their educational object.

Table 5 Content analysis of final reflection of work results
Category Occurrence (out of 166 submitted) Representative student comments
Positive feelings towards the project 149 (90%) “This project felt like a fun and interesting experience [⋯] it allowed me to relax and soak in what I was learning about the compound of my choice”

“I learned so much information about a compound I had never even heard of before this class. My representation was very original and appropriate for the class”

Positive feelings towards the class 10 (6%) “I got the chance to brainstorm craft ideas and get creative in a chemistry course, which doesn’t usually happen”

“I enjoyed that this project was a way to incorporate art into a subject that wouldn’t normally have it. It was definitely a pleasant difference from any other chemistry course I’ve taken, and I feel like this made the experience really unique”

Negative feelings towards the project 29 (17%) “The worst part of the project is how awkward it felt for me to be arranging sticks in Pullen Park”

“My least favorite part was how stressed I became to try and figure out a way to represent my molecule”

Appreciation of creativity 62 (37%) “I would never have expected to be able to create something so fun in an organic chemistry class”

“My favorite part of this project was watching it all come together. I like seeing the big picture of the finished product. I also enjoyed seeing others projects and how creative and passionate people were about their compounds. It was amazing to see so much creativity all together in one classroom”

Ability to share 32 (19%) “My favorite thing about this project was that we were able to see everyone else's project and peer review it. A lot of the time you submit a project and you have no idea what everybody else did unless you ask, so it was awesome to see all of the other projects!”

“I enjoy being able to teach my mom about the different parts of the structure such as the double bonds, the methyl groups, etc., that I had learned in class”

Changes made to the project 92 (55%) “The changes I made resulted from the peer reviews. They helped me see my representation in a different light and understand what was missing from it”

“I added captions to make my representation clearer”

Perception of risk 93/166 (56%) “3D printing was a risk because of how fragile the molecular structure is”

“It is easy for an infographic to become dull and drowned in information. I used color schemes and design options in my project that aren’t necessarily common, in hopes to make the graphic visually stimulating”


Compound choices and modes of representation

Students were given the opportunity to choose a compound for this project based on their individual interests, with no limitations being imposed on their choices. Most students chose compounds that they recognized or were familiar with (29%), or compounds that they considered related to their intended majors (22%). Compounds that can be found in foodstuffs (12%) and pharmaceuticals (12%) were also popular. A few students in the class requested help from the instructor in order to find a novel compound for their projects, but most students chose compounds that they were familiar with in some capacity. Once the compounds were chosen, students were asked to submit a proposal form with their intended mode of representation, and were instructed to make the representation relevant in relation to the chosen compound.

Many of the students in the class were in majors related to agricultural sciences or had a family background in farming, which had an impact on their choice of compounds and their representations. Molecules such as nicotine and cellulose were quite popular, and many of the educational objects generated incorporated plant materials that worked to reinforce the farming theme. Other compounds were chosen due to name recognition, such as caffeine, capsaicin, or glucose. The same is true for active ingredients in drugs of abuse, such as tetrahydrocannabinol and psilocybin. An effort was made in the project instructions to make sure that students didn’t promote the use of any illegal drugs in their educational objects, a directive that was followed by all participants. It is interesting to note that many students in the class were familiar with the names of the active ingredients in these drugs, and found such educational objects to be interesting, as evidenced in the comments that such projects received during the peer review phase.

For the production of the representations students were offered some free resources available at the North Carolina State University Libraries’ Makerspace. These free resources included the ability to create a 3D print of their compounds and some students in the class took advantage of this opportunity (22%). 3D printing has been used to create demonstrative educational objects in different contexts, yet the reports in the literature are examples in which the instructor has created the learning object(s) (Penny et al., 2017 and references therein). This project is unique because the students were not required or limited to 3D printing and the students were responsible for developing the skills that were necessary to represent their compound. Students were encouraged to use their 3D printed molecules to create their educational objects, and did so with varying degrees of success. Some of the educational objects involving 3D printing created accurate representations of the target molecules and then depicted them using a suitable background, to provide context regarding the molecule's origin or use to capture the attention of a potential audience. Creativity in the use of the 3D printed structure was an important part of the project, as indicated in the rubric. The same standard was applied to representations created using other available media; it was not enough to produce a molecule. The creation of the educational object went past the simple act of printing or crafting a structure and included a deliberate effort to place the molecule in a suitable and interesting context.

Models and representations, by definition, can only approximate reality (Park et al., 2017 and references therein). The final project requirement to post on social media was an exercise in science communication, and the purpose of this exercise was to inform, to intrigue, and to reach as many people as possible. Students were openly encouraged to take artistic liberties with their representations in order to find a reasonable balance between the chemical structure of their compounds and the ability to effectively engage more people. In some cases, the structures that were produced lacked 3D spatial features, or were incomplete. Even though some projects were not structurally accurate, the educational objects that were produced were interesting and attracted the attention of their peers and social media audience. The structural shortcomings were, in some cases, sufficiently balanced by the object's overall depiction and the degree of interest it generated. In addition, the correctness of the molecular structures was assessed and points were deducted according to the rubric in Table 2. Although peer review and instructor feedback were provided, not all students took advantage of the opportunity to make the suggested corrections, such as a missing atom or a misplaced bond. Like with any graded assignment, the quality of the resulting projects was variable and not always satisfactory.

It was encouraging to see that even when several students picked the same compound their modes of representation and educational objects ended up being quite different. Since students were being encouraged to be original and creative when producing their educational objects, plagiarism of ideas or approaches was not a problem observed in this class. On the contrary, students were observed discussing their approaches amongst themselves and with the instructor frequently, and suggesting changes to improve on the projects of others as well as their own, not just in the context of the class peer review but also in informal settings. After the peer review phase was completed many students made changes to their projects, not only based on the feedback received, but also inspired by the projects that they were asked to peer review. Some of the changes involved a complete overhaul of the project, but in most cases small improvements that involved better staging, photo quality, or photo editing resulted in a higher quality educational object.

Consistent with the proposed self-regulated learning framework (Zimmerman, 1998, 2002) students were given ample time to think about their intended representations (forethought phase) including reflective components of the assignment. This was followed by the production of their educational objects including a social media construct suitable for sharing. This would correspond to Zimmerman's performance phase, and it includes the early peer review component of this project. Following the performance phase with prompts for revision and resubmission allows students time to self-reflect on their choices (last step in Zimmerman's framework), and to incorporate the feedback received from the peer reviews.

Social media impact

As recommended in Dabbagh and Kitsantas’ theoretical framework, the students had to either create a social media account of their choosing or decide to have the instructor post the educational object for them on a social media platform. Even though this was only required for the one post at the end of the semester, this step in the project helps establish a personal learning environment for the student where they are free to generate content and potentially engage in informal self-regulated learning. The self-reflective and peer review components of this assignment certainly impacted the perceived quality of the educational object and how it would be displayed as a post on social media. Some projects were dramatically different after revisions and advice whereas other projects did not benefit as much.

As a result of the free choice of social media platform, the students’ educational object posts had varying levels of outside/public engagement as can be seen in Fig. 4. The choice of social media outlet is thought to have a significant impact on the level of social engagement due to the way the platform is used. There are many other factors that determine the level of social engagement like the time of the post, the number of followers the student has at the time of the post, and even the quality and appeal of the student's post, as well as many other variables. However, it is thought that since all social media users are required to use the platform (i.e. general day-to-day use) in a similar manner, this is most likely one of the most significant factors impacting the distribution of activity for each post. For example, 48% of all recorded interaction came from Instagram (mostly likes) which only requires the user to scroll through their timeline of predetermined accounts they chose to follow and simply touch or click on a heart icon. The same observation can be made for the interactions on twitter because the outlet operates in a similar manner and because retweets can also be made using only a single touch. Twitter and Instagram both had low levels of greater-engagement interactions (interactions requiring more than just a single touch or click) which may be due to the effort or external implications of making a comment or reply. The effort to make a higher level interaction could be seen as too much and/or viewed as unfavorable for the social presence of the user. This is an interesting occurrence because the user is actually required to search for the video they want to watch and then the user has to spend a variable amount of time watching the video. However, this data does not imply that the video was watched all the way through which could explain why there were only two single events of a comment or a like on a YouTube video.

Varying levels of social media engagement were to be expected for many reasons. As mentioned before, due to the personal nature of social media, the varying levels of experience and number of subscribers and pre-existing followers can significantly impact the kind of social response there will be towards a post related to the student's chosen molecule. In addition, the varying levels of effort put forth by students and the quality of the post are just two of many variables that can affect whether someone will interact with a post or not. The goal or the perceived benefit of the student's post is also thought to be an important factor that will affect how the post will be displayed and received. Social media is not a single static instrument; it is a rapidly changing dynamic space that depends on variables that might be beyond the user's control. Students in the course were asked to share their educational objects on social media and to make a good faith effort to promote positive interactions, but they were not graded based on the number of social media interactions received as a result of such efforts.

In general, as shown on Fig. 6, there was a positive correlation between a student's grade in the class and the percentage of social media interactions for their educational objects. However, it is important to acknowledge that the distribution of grades was not normal and was skewed towards higher grade percentiles because there were very few students with low grades included (most students with D–F grades did not complete all stages of the project). Yet, the students with the best grades received the most social interactions, which suggests that these students might have produced interesting educational objects suitable for sharing in this format and/or taken steps to promote their educational objects on social media. These two actions are another form of engagement that occurred throughout the project.

Content analysis of final reflections of work

The assignment required the students to identify their favorite and least favorite elements of the project. As can be seen on Table 5, 90% of the students produced statements that indicated positive feelings towards the outcome of the project or the overall process; this finding indicates a high degree of student satisfaction. Even though we didn’t set out to measure learning gains in this project, students mentioned learning previously unknown information about their chosen molecule. Other students commented on the opportunity to apply concepts learned in the class to their subject molecule. In addition, 6% of the students reported positive feelings towards the class or the instructor, with some students indicating positive feelings in both categories. 17% of the students reported negative feelings towards the project. Most of these complaints were related to scheduling issues or time constraints, but not necessarily to the assigned task or the outcome. Some students did mention dissatisfaction with the required social media element, mostly due to the fact that they used social media in a personal context, and were not accustomed to sharing class projects in this manner. A small percentage of students had a mixture of positive and negative feelings towards the project, most of them indicating that the experience had been time-consuming, but it resulted in an outcome they considered satisfactory. Also, although this project required an extensive amount of writing, since there was a written reflection at every step, there were no complaints about the writing component. Many students (37%) mentioned that they appreciated the opportunity to be creative, or to observe the creativity of others. This is a relevant outcome, since one of the objectives of a TH!NK course is to encourage creative thinking.

Some other findings were considered in the emergent categories of the content analysis. 19% of the students mentioned the ability to share their projects in their final reflections, mostly in the context of sharing with family and friends. The use of a single class hashtag across social media outlets was mentioned as a good way to see the projects of other class members, and was considered a desirable feature. Also, as a result of the feedback received from the instructor and from the peer review, many students (55%) made changes to their original projected representation. The large number of students making changes indicated a high level of engagement and a desire to produce good quality work. Since the ultimate goal was to create a shareable educational object it seems fitting that the students in the class spent time considering the best way to accomplish that goal, and were willing to make time-consuming changes or adjustments to their project towards that end. Most changes involved refining of the original representations, as can be seen in the representative comments included in Table 5.

Finally, students expressed their perception of the risks taken when producing their educational objects. 56% of the students that completed the project believed that their project carried some risk associated with it. Most of the risk perception came from the use of new technology such as 3D printing, or the social media sharing component, which indicates that students were concerned about the quality and accuracy of their representations. Students were asked to share their work widely, thus they had to think of it as it would be viewed by others, both expert and novice observers; this unique double perspective served as a motivator to create thoughtful pieces, and might have contributed to the high level of student satisfaction with the project.

As a result of this project students reported positive outcomes including increased interest in organic chemistry and their chosen compounds, as well as the acquisition of practical skills including science communication skills that were perceived by students as being beneficial for future professional endeavors. It must be noted that the outcomes of the content analysis are based on self-reports by students. Future work on this project will involve the assessment of learning gains by means that are not dependent on student self-reported outcomes.


Analysis of the project results shows that most students appreciated the open nature of the assignment, and engaged in self-regulated learning by reflecting and improving on their educational object design along each step of the project. Subjects varied widely depending on the students’ personal interests, and many different educational objects were produced and shared using diverse social media outlets. The response to the student's social media post was varied and dependent on many personally related and uncontrollable variables. As a result of this project, students reported positive outcomes including increased interest in organic chemistry and science in general as well as the acquisition of practical skills including science communication and visual representation of science. These skills were perceived by students as being beneficial for future professional endeavors. Most students reported positive feelings towards the class and the project, and were motivated to produce high quality work due to the social media component.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts to declare.


We thank Sara Glee Queen for initial feedback on project design. Brittany Crouse, Emily Vernon, and Melinda Box helped with the content analysis. Nicholas Williams assisted with formatting. We would also like to acknowledge the support of our students by Adam Rogers and the personnel at the North Carolina State University Libraries D. H. Hill Makerspace during this project. This paper was greatly improved by the helpful suggestions of our reviewers.


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