“ChemisTree:” A game to enhance chemistry understanding for undergraduate students

Staff Reporter

“ChemisTree,” published in The Journal of Chemical Education, is made to transform the way students think and learn about electron arrangement, a complex chemistry topic taught in general chemistry courses. 

The publication is co-first authored by Slade Goldman, a junior at the university, and Kate Coscia, a Ph.D. student at Middle Tennessee State University. “ChemisTree” marks Goldman and Coscia’s first journal publication, as well as university professor Lauren Genova’s first publication as Principal Investigator (PI). 

Genova, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, teaches general chemistry, an introductory-level course typically filling large lecture halls each semester.

“Not every student shines the most brightly through a written exam, so I like to try to allow students to submit other types of assignments to help boost their grades,” Genova said. 

This is why Genova incorporates a “creativity portion” on her final exam, where students have to create a project that demonstrates their knowledge of a specific chemistry concept.  

For the creativity portion of his final exam, Goldman, a then-first semester freshman, pitched “ChemisTree,” a game teaching students about electron configuration using LEGO bricks.  

The game consists of a gray LEGO board with a green tree made of flat LEGO pieces on top. Each layer of the tree represents a different orbital level; students place different colored pieces onto each layer of the tree to show how many electrons fit within each layer, or orbital. 

Provided by Lauren Genova

Students spin a wheel to see which element they have to represent with their trees, and they can check their answers with a provided PowerPoint that has the keys for each element included in the game. 

The game teaches students how to understand key concepts regarding electron configuration necessary to successfully advance in the course: the Aufbau principle, Pauli exclusion principle and Hund’s rule. 

“I grew up playing with LEGOs,” Goldman, a construction engineering and management major, said. “I have a LEGO city in my basement. LEGOs were always my thing, so I decided to create a game that would kind of inspire the future students to just have some fun and make it easier to learn the topic.”

After the class ended, Goldman and Genova decided to pursue making it into a real game and getting it published. This required countless hours of fine-tuning and research. One of the ways they researched the efficacy of the game was through pre- and post-tests as well as The Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS). 

Coscia, a mathematics and science education student, was brought in and contributed their knowledge about math and science education to help with some of the research required for publishing, including suggesting the pre- and post-tests that showed an 11.5 percent increase in test scores after playing the game. 

“Seeing actual hands-on learning and the real difference it makes in the classroom was great,” Coscia said. “It really gave me some confidence that I’m doing the right thing and that it’ll help students.”

Goldman and Coscia worked with Genova to set up the classroom for COPUS, placing video cameras around the room so that they could collect data about different behaviors that students and instructors demonstrated during game play.  

“One of the things that we are really trying to promote in science classes is an array of active learning techniques, as opposed to just passive learning where you’re just listening to the professor talk at you,” Genova said. 

Goldman never thought he would be involved with chemistry research, but because of Genova’s general chemistry course, he was given the opportunity.

“I never really thought chemistry would ever be my thing,” Goldman said. “Even though chemistry wasn’t my favorite, the professor was amazing, and that was the reason I even took this on. 

“I can see the real impact it’s made, and I know it’s not stopping here. It will continue for as long as Dr. Genova is teaching, and that’s remarkable.”