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RCSJ Professor takes innovative approach to “flipping chemistry”

Dr. Robert Rossi has now teamed up with chemistry educators from other institutions to bring a more innovative approach into more chemistry classrooms

Dr. Robert Rossi assists organic chemistry students gathered around a “huddle board” seeking the answer to a chemical problem. Rossi, the first instructor at the College to “flip” his classroom, recently co-authored an article published in the Journal of Chemical Education with six other chemistry educators nationwide.

Rowan College of South Jersey (RCSJ) students have been “flipping” over chemistry since 2012, when Dr. Robert Rossi first introduced the concept to his organic chemistry class. The first instructor at the college to turn the traditional style of teaching upside down for a more innovative approach, Rossi has now teamed up with chemistry educators from other institutions to bring these active learning methods into more classrooms.

“I understood that the way I was teaching, through the use of what you would describe as a passive learning environment—I lectured, assigned homework and the students would go home and do it themselves, wasn’t working for most students,” said Rossi. “I began researching and introducing active learning methods into my classes to help students use what they had learned and worked on it in class. I thought, there has to be a better way of teaching so that the students can actually learn and implement these lessons.”

Published in the Journal of Chemical Education in 2019, Rossi is one of the seven co-authors of “OrganicERs: Building a Community of Practice for Organic Chemistry Instructors through Workshops and Web-Based Resources.” The article provides guidance on how to apply active learning techniques in the organic chemistry classroom. Additional academic support is also available through the OrganicERs’ own website, organicers.org, which offers workshops and other resources to organic chemistry instructors across the country. The website, created to be a community hub for professors, serves as a student-centered environment where ideas, questions, exams, syllabi and lab experiments can all be shared.

When Rossi decided to flip his Organic Chemistry 201 and 202 classes eight years ago, it transformed the way he teaches his students. It also made a big change to his lesson plans. Unlike the typical learning environment with lectures held in front of the classroom and problems related to the content learned and solved at home, Rossi’s chem students watch instructional videos at their convenience for homework and work on problems during class. Preparing for these web-enhanced courses required a personal investment of about 96 hours to create 350, 10–15-minute videos.

This new format allows students the flexibility to watch videos at their leisure, with the option to pause and restart if more study is required. Class time is reserved for solving the more advanced problems and practicing what is being learned. Over the years, he has monitored the effectiveness of “flipping” his courses and has noticed a dramatic increase in grades, and student enjoyment of the course material. Rossi attributes this to students being engaged and actively learning through collaboration.

Since the article’s publication, Rossi has witnessed many of his fellow faculty members implementing the active learning methods into their own classrooms, including the dean of the College’s STEM division.  The response from students has been positive as well. Even in advanced courses like organic chemistry, students are engaged and enjoying the learning experience.

“I like that with having all of his videos readily available, you can hit different areas and tackle different parts to help solve problems in class through a visual way of learning,” remarked Isabella Inastroza, a Gloucester County Institute of Technology High School student taking advanced college classes at RCSJ. “If you are struggling with a certain part, someone else can step in and help too.”

“The videos help to speed up the learning process so when we are in class working, we are able to get through more,” added Erin O’Donnell of Gloucester City, who enjoys the online lectures. “If we need to, we can always go back and re-watch a lecture.”

Rossi, who for 25 years worked with specialty/polymer chemicals in private industry, began teaching after his retirement. Today, after almost 20 years in the classroom, chemistry remains close to his heart. He continues to share his passion with students by offering interesting learning techniques to help make chemistry comprehensible and exciting.

“From when I was very young I always had an interest in chemistry, but growing up during the era of science-fiction, JFK and the space race, it only helped to drive it further,” said Rossi. “I mean, what kid didn’t grow up during that time wanting to be a scientist working for NASA? I love what I do. It is the best job I’ve ever had.”

For more information about RCSJ’s chemistry program, visit RCSJ.edu/STEM.

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