Nov 24, 2015
Dr. Laurence Lavelle
Dr. Laurence Lavelle’s Chemistry Community, an online chemistry database and peer-to-peer learning tool, exceeded 1 million page views last week.                                                               
 
Dr. Lavelle created the site to enhance the learning experience for his students in Chemistry 14A and 14B. He explains its many features, “Currently my forum is unique in that it is a logical and visual layout of chemistry topics, subtopics, and sub-subtopics with a rich Q&A database that enables both simple and sophisticated search options. On top of this foundation, Chemistry Community allows students to interact with each other as well as instructors, teaching assistants, undergraduate assistants, tutors, etc.”
 
Having an online forum where students can seek answers helps those who may be too shy to ask questions in class. The site gives equal status to student, instructor, teaching and undergraduate assistants so students who are answering their peers’ questions feel empowered by their own knowledge and mastery of information.  
 
The site not only provides answers to chemistry questions; it also encourages discussions about scientific topics. In one post, a student named Dylan, inspired by the biological links Dr. Lavelle makes between chemistry and biology, shared his thoughts on the relation of zinc to T-cells and the aging process. He invited his fellow students to read further by providing a link to a scientific article on the subject. 
 
Chemistry Community was created over a three year period by Dr. Lavelle and when he first used it Fall 2013 he did not allow students to upload images, PDFs, and videos as he was not sure how his ‘online experiment’ would work. Given the overwhelmingly positive student response, the third time he used it students were encouraged to use the additional features he enabled and within weeks Chemistry Community had its first crash due to high student demand. At times there are over a 100 students simultaneously logged onto Chemistry Community, currently there are 7,484 topics, although most use is for viewing/reading. 
 
Dr. Lavelle considers the success of Chemistry Community a reflection of the terrific students at UCLA who he thoroughly enjoys interacting with. “It is amazing to see the high quality and supportive student interactions online which I hope in some part reflect what I create in my classes.” The first time video uploads were allowed, Fall 2014, this student video explained why carbon dioxide is nonpolar whereas water is polar. Dr. Lavelle says this online venue is used by Chem 14A/14B students taking their first science courses Fall/Winter as they enter UCLA and is one of several resources he has created to facilitate different learning modes for his very diverse students. However Lavelle has more data than time. Prompted by the 1 million mark this quarter he analyzed student’s midterm exam score with number of posts which showed an overwhelming correlation between performance and posts. “Engaging with the material improves both knowledge content and problem solving ability which long-term is the most important aspect of a solid educational foundation on which students can build and use throughout life.”
 
Only students in Dr. Lavelle’s classes know about Chemistry Community and can post Q&A which explains why 93% of the page views originate within California, although his students from out of state do access it during Winter break, etc. 
 
Dr. Lavelle, the recipient of UCLA’s highest teaching award in 2009, is still looking for ways to improve, and it no surprise that he is creating additional features that will make Chemistry Community suitable for other chemistry classes in the future. Another option he has thought about, that would facilitate hiring a programmer/assistant, is allowing online ads to generate revenue but he is reluctant due to the cognitive distraction ads create. Other options that he mulls include Chemistry students around the world being given access to post Q&A but that would require full-time staff and significant hardware resources. “Creating both the tool and the content was really a full-time job, getting FERPA compliance took many months, for now I’m adding a couple of features that should be very useful for all forum users and enjoying time with my students.”
 
Celebrating 1 million page views with Dr. Lavelle’s Undergraduate Assistants (who prefer chocolate cake!)
 
Celebrating 1 million page views with Dr. Lavelle’s Teaching Assistants (who prefer pizza!)