AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts professor Bill Vining has co-authored a best-seller, but you won’t find it on any bookshelf. Vining, a chemistry professor, played a major role in creating an interactive CD-ROM for chemistry students. The disc, Saunders Interactive General Chemistry, has sold 17,000 copies in less than a year, making it the best-selling college-level chemistry software on the market. The CD is co-authored by Jack Kotz and produced by Archipelago Productions.
One of the most challenging tasks, Vining says, was to present the textbook information in a medium that is primarily visual. CD-ROM supports high-quality animation and graphics, along with audio elements, Vining explains. At the same time, he had to compress the written text without diminishing the information: "I had to find ways to visually get all of the information across effectively. For each topic, I thought, ‘When I teach before a class, what’s the best way to visualize this? What analogies would I use?’" says Vining, who has received awards for his teaching.
Vining eventually broke down 21 chapters of text into a series of 700 interactive screens, which include text, voice, and visual elements. Students can look at 3-D models of chemical compounds, "rotating" them on the screen, or they can conduct virtual chemistry experiments, controlling variables such as temperature and vapor pressure. "We have the ability to show students things they couldn’t see before," he said. "They’re actively learning in the best way. They actually have to figure everything out themselves."
Vining emphasizes that computer learning doesn’t aim to replace classroom time or actual laboratory experience, but rather to supplement both. "Chemical simulation software, instead of replacing the laboratory experience, extends the ability of students to design and carry out experiments," says Vining, who has also written a CD-ROM-based chemistry tutorial called Chemland. Chemland includes simulations of experiments that it’s not possible to conduct, such as monitoring the breakdown of radioactive matter over millions of years.
Both in the classroom and in his computer pursuits, Vining is a strong proponent of encouraging independent, innovative scientific thought, he says.
"Whether you’re standing in front of a class or writing a program, the idea is not to give students the answer," said Vining. "The idea is to just give information and a few hints, and enable students to arrive at the answer independently."