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Chemistry Professors Cut Textbook Costs

By Courtney Kratz, Contributor

According to the College Board, the average student at a public, four-year institution spent $1,200 on textbooks for the 2014-2015 academic year. Despite the fact that textbook costs are rising faster than tuition rates, students taking organic chemistry courses at Furman can expect to be outliers in this otherwise alarming statistic.

Thanks to Professors Brian Goess, Ph.D. and Greg Springsteen, Ph.D. of the Chemistry Department, students taking organic chemistry and its two subsequent courses do not have to purchase textbooks for any of the classes. The first course, Organic Chemistry, uses a set of out-of-print textbooks. The second level course, Bioorganic Chemistry, allows  students to collaborate on their own “textbook” using a wiki page, and the senior level course utilizes a flipped classroom model.

According to Goess, he and Springsteen began developing the course to prepare students for new content on the MCAT. As an introductory level course, they decided it would be inappropriate not to use a textbook, as most students would need an authoritative resource to turn to in order to supplement what they learned in class and online.

The textbook they required was an out-of-print edition, so Goess and Springsteen were able to buy less expensive books online. They have collected five dollar copies in perfect condition the past few years, mostly through Amazon. They have continued the process periodically, accumulating roughly 60 books with plans to reach 100. Using this collection as a lending library, Goess and Springsteen will completely eliminate the commerce component of textbook purchases for Organic Chemistry at Furman.

For the next level course, however, Goess and Springsteen had to be more creative. For Bioorganic Chemistry, there was no textbook in print for the course they designed. Unable to do without a textbook and too early in their tenure track to write one themselves, Goess and Springsteen decided to let the students write their own textbook using a wiki, which would overcome quite a few problems that traditional textbooks encounter.

“Textbooks are usually written by an expert who is often very far removed from the learning process, and who may not remember what the struggle was like to learn in the first place,” Goess said.

He explained that many textbook authors are not writing to students but to other faculty members who are ultimately responsible for deciding whether or not students should purchase the book, which often makes writing styles more pedantic and less receptive to students.

Students writing to other students overcomes many of these barriers, providing another vehicle to learning, often with multiple approaches to the same concept. Students are not required to write technically, so they use examples that a more authoritative author might be reluctant to write.

“These textbooks come up with beautiful similes or metaphors that capture what is happening on a chemical level,” Goess said.

In addition, the wiki textbook evolves over time in a way that print editions cannot. It exists as a dynamic text that develops with the class, so far through more than ten generations of students. Through this process, Goess and Springsteen are able to avoid using outdated material: if new ideas come up in scientific literature, students can build it into the wiki.

“The sheer notion of students teaching other students, it really does mimic the actual scientific process,” Goess said.

He criticized the standard textbook model because it gives the impression that scientific knowledge is simply passed down in an orderly fashion over time. To Goess, science works by discovering a new concept, presenting it and having your peers investigate it.

“Through the peer review process, we continually build a better and better understanding of how the world operates. This is exactly how our wiki textbook has evolved,” Goess said.

For the purpose of course progression, the wiki helps prepare students for the next class in a research lab.

In the senior level course, a textbook is not appropriate. Students will soon be sent to graduate school, where they will be responsible for creating new knowledge and research using professional scientific literature.

For this class, Goess uses a flipped classroom model, utilizing video recorded lectures and having students watch them in advance. In doing so, Goess is able to use class time to work hands on problems. Any reading material for this course is limited to articles with no student expenditure required. In this way, all three courses accomplish their learning prerogatives without textbook purchases or other expenditures by the students.

Having presented the wiki model to other institutions, Goess has shown that these approaches are applicable across all disciplines and designed by nature to be cost efficient.

For the wiki textbook, Furman University pays for a server called Confluence, which is usable by any faculty member university-wide. While this model requires expenditures by the university, early iterations of the wiki were designed on a free to use software platform, PBworks.

For the senior level course and flipped classroom approach, only a one time purchase of the technology was necessary, with costs ranging from a simple flipped video camera to more sophisticated Light Board set up.

In each course, Goess and Springsteen demonstrate innovative ways to move past the traditional model of purchasing new editions of textbooks every year. Creating new styles  of learning such as the wiki, they have set a cost-efficient precedent in addressing rising college textbook costs that works in theory as well as in practice.

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