Turning Chemistry Inside Out:

The New Flipped Classroom

A story celebrating teaching excellence at UBC — innovative, evidence-based and committed to transforming the student learning experience.

Dr. Stephen McNeil wasn’t happy with traditional approaches to teaching chemistry. Recognizing that most of his first-year students weren’t actually planning to complete a full degree in the chemical sciences, he wanted to find a way to make his discipline easier to understand and more relatable to students’ everyday lives. From sustainable energy to pharmaceuticals, chemistry touches everything in a person’s world, but the links from first-year concepts to these issues are not obvious, and not explicitly taught in most introductory courses. Realizing his first-year course might be his only chance to help students understand the broader societal impacts of chemistry, Dr. McNeil started with just one question: What if he could help his students understand how chemistry relates to their own experience of life?


You’ve changed the way you teach chemistry at UBC. Why?

A: We need to get people more engaged with chemistry. The United Nations outlines 17 goals explaining how we can transform our current civilization into one that can sustainably exist on this planet. While some of the goals are purely social or political in nature, most of them involve physical, material stuff. For example, the goals demand that we supply healthy food and clean water and air; generate, transport and store cheap renewable energy; discover and universally provide better medicine; and synthesize the textiles and materials necessary for clothing, shelter and infrastructure for 8.5 billion people by 2030.

We don’t actually know how to do that yet.

That’s where chemistry comes in. We need to get much better at taking the stuff we have and turning it into the stuff we need. And to do that sustainably, we need to take only the resources we won’t run out of, turn them into only the things we need, and then, when we don’t need those things anymore, turn them all back into materials we can re-use. And the energy we must use to do it cannot put a single kilogram of carbon into the sky.

That’s really all chemistry is: turning stuff into other stuff. So to save the planet, we need better chemistry. We need people who understand how chemistry can inform and transform the advances we need in biochemistry, agriculture, biotechnology, energy generation and storage, information technology, and medicine. Chemistry is a phenomenal tool for bettering our society. We need more people who understand it and want to discover new ways to use it.

Chemistry formula

How are you changing the way your students learn?

A: I want to captivate minds in my first-year chemistry classes. Most of those students are only there to get their science requirement. They’re not planning to be chemistry majors — and yet chemistry professors around the world teach them as if they are. I’d like to get every student to a place where, upon graduation, they can participate in discussions about how the chemical sciences can impact and sustain our lives, but the only thing traditional first-year chemistry courses prepares students for is the second-year courses that most of them don’t take.

To accomplish that, I needed to shift away from traditional teaching to a more collaborative, problem-based approach. I need to put the interesting stuff up front, and show students that even introductory concepts can provide a better understanding of how chemistry impacts both broader societal issues and their personal lives.

My colleague Tamara Freeman and I are rolling out a flipped delivery approach over the next few years, and I’ll be doing research on it along the way. Students will do some pre-learning before they come to class, either by reading or watching a video lecture or simulation. When they come to class, we’ll check in about whether there’s anything they don’t understand. From there, they’ll break into small groups to apply those anchoring concepts to a real-world problem, with the teaching assistant (TA) and either Tamara or myself circulating to facilitate discussions. The activities embed key principles of chemistry within a meaningful contextual framework that students can connect to. Some of the examples come from historical events, some from current societal challenges, and yet others from the chemistry research programs on both UBC campuses.

Stephen with beaker

How does this approach change the field of chemistry?

A: Education research clearly shows that this flipped teaching model improves conceptual gains and retention, because the students develop their own understanding, individually or in groups. It allows me to better engage my students, which leads to better learning outcomes. While the flipped classroom model isn’t new to chemistry, the way we’re approaching it — by nesting topics in a learning framework of real-world issues — is. We’re embedding the conceptual learning into meaningful contextual frameworks and not just abstract end-of-chapter problems, which should enhance student engagement even further. Because there hasn’t been much research so far into the affective and attitudinal shifts that students experience when learning this way, we are going to study it. In our research we are hoping to see bounces not just in conceptual understanding but also in appreciation for the importance and impacts of chemistry.

Our project is funded by the Aspire Learning and Teaching Fund at UBC Okanagan, which emphasizes teaching innovation and active learning. This represents a remarkable opportunity for us, and it’s not one we would have been able to pursue otherwise. We’d love to see more funding from the federal government for science education research in Canada; it’s almost nonexistent, such that many disciplinary science education researchers have to partner with US collaborators to obtain funding. So it’s wonderful for an internal funding source to support projects like this.


Dr. Stephen McNeil’s flipped approach to teaching first-year chemistry is just one example of how education is always evolving at UBC. Evidence-based, technology-enabled teaching methods such as Dr. McNeil’s enable students to anchor their learning in real-world scenarios. Flexible learning offers students greater meaning, engagement and understanding — and ultimately, greater success.

What does flipped delivery look like?

At UBC, flipped delivery is just one approach to flexible learning. The flipped classroom inverts the traditional lecture-based classroom. Instead of coming to class and listening to a lecture, students watch short online videos or pre-read the material before class. Class time is spent applying concepts or knowledge through engaging in-class activities.

It’s a very different structure. It’s hugely engaging. As well, it’s good preparation for the world of employment, when these people are working in teams.

Stephen McNeil

Chemistry professor at UBC Okanagan, chemistry education researcher, board game enthusiast, and science outreach chembassador. According to ratemyprofessors.com, “…the epitome of excellent, middle-aged teaching.”

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Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partners:

Dr. Stephen McNeil, Associate Professor, Irving K. Barber School of Arts & Sciences, UBC Okanagan; Leanne Takenaka, Associate Director, Communications and Marketing, University Relations, UBC Okanagan; Chris Bowman, Communications and Marketing Strategist, University Relations, UBC Okanagan; Deanna Roberts, Communications Manager, Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences, UBC Okanagan; Chris Guenard, Digital Channels, Communications Coordinator, University Relations, UBC Okanagan.

Team credits: Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Mark Pilon, Communication Designer; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Alex Van Tol, Writer; David Leidl, Copy Editor.

Published: October 2016