Research in our lab is concerned with describing and understanding how students learn chemistry over long periods of time, how specific teaching practices influence student learning in chemistry, how scientists can learn from teachers to communicate science more effectively, and what is needed so that doing science and gaining scientific literacy will be more equally available to all students. The unifying feature of our work is that it is directed at improving equity and creating capacity for more students to have access to learning science.

Current Research Projects

Asset-Based Supplemental Chemistry

General Chemistry I is a gateway course to many STEM majors, and at many higher education institutions it has the highest DFW rates of all gateway courses, typically ranging between 33 to 50%. There is a strong relationship between diversity of students and DFW rates in gateway courses. Predictors of DFW include coming from a low socioeconomic status background, belonging to a racial group that is under-represented in STEM, being a non-native English language speaker, and being a first-generation college student. There is also a strong correlation between these predictors and students who attend two-year colleges; meanwhile, about half of students who complete a bachelor's degree in the US started their undergraduate education at two-year colleges. While knowledge of who is at risk of DFW in gateway courses is important for narrowing racial and other diversity-related disparities in STEM, this knowledge alone is insufficient to address this injustice and repay the educational debt owed to these students. The stock approach to addressing the disparities in chemistry (and other STEM subjects) is to identify at-risk students and remediate, either through a semester of introductory chemistry taken prior to General Chemistry I or by enrolling students in a separate General Chemistry I course with a slower pace and more extensive math training. Unfortunately, a wide array of studies have shown that the effects of remediation do not endure beyond the semester in which students are enrolled in these courses.

Instead of focusing on what is wrong with students, we seek to learn and build on what is right with them. We are building and studying a course based on the strengths that students bring to their education from their diverse life experiences. This project addresses the question: How can an asset-based approach support the academic success in General Chemistry I and beyond for DFW-risk students? Instructional teams teach sections of CHEM 105 (a 1-credit asset-based supplemental chemistry course) and include an instructor who is a chemistry graduate student and a learning assistant who is an undergraduate student who recently completed General Chemistry I. The course's design is built on activity theory principles: (a) adopt the perspective of the student, (b) provide structure that lowers the activation barrier for students to increase their agency, (c) encourage collaborative and social engagement in culturally and personally relevant activity, and (d) support dialogue, chemical literacy, and resourcefulness. The embedded research is built on critical race theory, and seeks to address the following questions: (1) Which elements of the course design are productive in supporting student success, and how so? (2) What are the lasting impacts of the course on student success? (3) How does the system of supports at the university function toward students' negotiation of challenges and cultivation of meaningful relationships that support academic success? (4) How do the experiential realities of the students empower them to succeed as they intersect with the processes of support that surround them in the course, at the university, and in their lives?
A recent UMass Boston news story highlights this project.
Research group members involved: Jessica Karch, Klaudja Caushi, Shahar Abramovitch

Chemical Thinking Learning Progression (CTLP) and Assessing for Change in Chemical Thinking (ACCT)

We are currently involved in Phase 2 of a multi-year, NSF-funded collaboration to study how students develop understanding of chemistry from grade 8 through undergraduate completion and how to support teachers to develop their students' chemical thinking. Learning progressions are cognitive models that describe pathways of how the learning of ideas and abilities develops over time. Our Chemical Thinking Learning Progression is organized by the three main practices of chemistry (synthesis, analysis and transformation) instead of by the content of chemistry. It examines the development of students' chemical thinking during three primary activities in chemistry: sense-making through investigating the properties and behaviors of chemical systems, problem-solving through designing substances or processes to address modern problems, and evaluating and making decisions with regard to the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits of chemical products and activities. The project is describing learning progress along domain-general and chemistry-specific progress variables that include design, reasoning, and conceptual sophistication. Six chemical thinking threads comprise the learning progression, each focused on fundamental questions in chemistry: 1) chemical identity (how do we identify chemical substances?), 2) structure-property relationships (how do we predict their properties?), 3) chemical causality (why do chemical processes occur?), 4) mechanism (how do chemical processes occur?), 5) chemical control (how can we control chemical processes?), and 6) benefits-costs-risks (how do we evaluate the impacts of chemically transforming matter?).

Prof. Sevian co-leads this project with Prof. Vicente Talanquer (University of Arizona) and Pam Pelletier (retired Director of Science, Technology and Engineering, Boston Public Schools). In addition to undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students in their research groups, six middle and high school teachers are on the research team (see the ACCT website on the American Chemical Society's ChemEd XChange for more info). Other collaborators in Phase 1 included Prof. Heilen Arce (University of Costa Rica) and students in her research group.

In the first phase of the project, we conducted literature reviews and developed instruments to uncover underlying implicit assumptions that guide and constrain how students think about chemistry. Through these, we developed hypothetical learning progression maps and tested progress variables along which progress of learning may be measured. Validation of the learning progression occurred in design-based research cycles, in collaboration with teachers and faculty. Validation of the Chemical Thinking Learning Progression is expected to help with understanding how to optimize curriculum, instructional materials, and instruction to support the reconceptualizations of student learning necessary for the evolution of learning along productive pathways in the learning progression.

(Phase 2 Research Group Members: Raúl Orduña Picón, Vesal Dini, Stephanie Murray, Tim Abell, Clarissa Keen, Klaudja Caushi; Collaborators: Pam Pelletier, Vicente Talanquer, Marianne Dunne, Greg Banks, Scott Balicki, Rob Huie, Michael Clinchot, Rebecca Lewis, Marianne Dunne)
(Phase 1 Research Group Members: Steven Cullipher, Courtney Ngai; Collaborators: Vicente Talanquer, Heilen Arce; Research Group Alumni: Marilyne Stains, Gabriela Szteinberg)
[Current funding: NSF DRL-1222624, and AAAS WIRC@MSIs grant]

Green Chemistry Inquiry Lab Development

Green chemistry is an environmentally conscious philosophical approach to doing chemistry which began with organic synthetic chemistry. We are investigating the impact on student learning and motivation to continue studying science of an explicitly green focus in freshman level chemistry labs. We have designed and carried out studies to investigate the incremental impact on student learning of phasing inquiry-oriented labs into a traditional freshman chemistry lab curriculum. (Current Research Group Members: Trenton Woodham; Research Group Alumni: Kristen Cacciatore)

We have used a research-based instructional materials development cycle to create several green, inquiry-based lab experiments for use in university freshman and high school chemistry courses. These include a green stoichiometry lab, an acid-base equilibrium lab, a lab connecting solubility, equilibrium & periodicity, and a colligative properties lab. The equilibrium & periodicity lab was a collaboration with Prof. Jason Evans [Chemistry, UMass Boston]. (Research Group Alumni: Jose Amado, Kristen Cacciatore, Mitzi Sweeney, Trenton Woodham)

Abstraction Thresholds in Undergraduate STEM Curricula

Drawing from developmental theory and cognition results, we hypothesize most undergraduate STEM curricula have an abstraction threshold at which point typical students’ current capacity for abstraction is not matched to the complexity of the problems being posed. This NSF-funded study seeks to determine in which undergraduate STEM curricula courses the abstraction threshold is most prominent in different majors (chemistry and electrical engineering, initially), ascertain relationships between cognitive processing exhibited by students and their course outcomes, and explore whether such thresholds are domain-general or have discipline-dependent nuances. The study applies Bloom's taxonomy to identify operational tasks expected by experts (faculty) on problems representing accountable disciplinary knowledge that students are expected to demonstrate in their courses, and applies a Representation Mapping analysis framework that distinguishes rule- and similarity-based reasoning, to account for degree of abstraction in students' problem solving approaches. Soon to be operational: please see STEM Abstraction website for further info. (Collaborator: Prof. Lance Pérez [Electrical Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln]; Research Group Alumni: Sarah Auguste, Gabriela Szteinberg)

[Current funding: NSF DUE-1348722]

Older Research Projects

Active Chemistry Curriculum

Active Chemistry is an inquiry-oriented high school curriculum whose development was funded by the National Science Foundation and which is published by It's About Time Publishing Company. Students participate in chapter-culminating performance tasks that require the use of chemistry to complete a challenge that is fun. The curriculum is in use in many school districts, including Baltimore, Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver Public Schools. We participated in writing six of the eleven chapters of the curriculum: Chemical Dominoes, CSI Chemistry, Soap Sense, Movie Special Effects, Fun with the Periodic Table, and Cool Chemistry Show. (Research Group Alumni: Kristen Cacciatore)

Light-emitting Thin Films Using Ruthenium

Thin films containing ruthenium complexes can be made into light-emitting diodes if spun onto a slide coated with transparent indium tin oxide (anode) and sandwiched by a metal cathode. We have adapted this system to educational settings so that students can learn about electrochemical processes, absorption and emission spectra, and basic circuits by investigating factors that affect luminosity in LEDs that they build. We developed the system into a lab experiment for freshman chemistry which we will use in a study of how students approach learning about electrochemistry. (Research Group Alumni: Laura Kibuuka, Soma Chattopadhyay)

In a collaboration with Prof. Michael Rubner at MIT, we explored the use of ruthenium as a catalyst in multilayer thin film devices as adaptive functional materials. (Research Group Alumni: Soma Chattopadhyay)

Teacher Content Knowledge Studies

In the context of the Boston Science Partnership, we studied how limited science content-focused professional development impacts student learning and how teaching specific science content impacts the understanding and retention of that science content by teachers. (Research Group Alumni: Tirzah Deering)

Scientific Explanation Studies

Science graduate students' and science teachers' explanations of science improve over time as they develop deeper understanding of the science and as they improve in their ability to communicate effectively. We developed a rubric to evaluate the quality of a scientific explanation based on a qualitative study of scientists explaining their research. We are using the rubric to characterize how science graduate students and science teachers evolve in their ability to communicate science. This is a collaboration with Prof. Lisa Gonsalves [Curriculum & Instruction, UMass Boston] and Prof. Robert Chen [Earth, Environmental and Ocean Sciences, UMass Boston].

STEM-K12 Studies

K12-university partnerships are a promising vehicle through which to achieve education reform and improvement at both K12 and higher education levels. We have studied biographical and contextual factors that predispose, support and inhibit science and math faculty involvement in K12 service. (Research Group Alumni: Allison Skerrett)

Underrepresentation by specific demographic groups in STEM majors and careers is of continued concern as very little has changed in 30 years. We investigated which contextual factors play the largest roles in underrepresented minority students' journey through the STEM pathway, seeking to understand how teacher and instructional quality, organized STEM pathway support programs, students' study habits, and their course choices explain retention of students, as well as reasons they leave, along the STEM pathway from high school through graduation from a four-year university, with and without passage through community college. (Research Group Alumni: Shiqi Hao)

We designed feasibility and research studies to explore the educational value of MolySym's intelligent molecular modeling system for high school chemistry students. The study was supported by a Fast Track Phase 1/2 SBIR grant from the US Department of Education.

Ongoing Work

  • Chemical Thinking Learning Progression
  • Green Chemistry Inquiry Lab Development
  • Abstraction Thresholds in Undergraduate STEM Curricula