Sunday, July 9, 2023

ChatSEL: A Novel Approach: Chemistry-Inspired Social-Emotional Learning Questions in the Classroom

Image courtesy of DALL-E
What do you get when you ask an AI to generate social-emotional learning questions for your high school chemistry class? Lots of really cool reflection and discussion, that’s what. 

I started a new routine this year of asking opening questions at the beginning of every class. Initially, I was mixing these up–one day would be a chemistry-related “warm-up” or “bell-ringer” type question to help the students tap into prior knowledge, and another day would be an SEL related question, like “How do you manage stress.” And sometimes, I’d integrate the two, like “Are you a proton, electron, or neutron, and why?” 

But a several months ago, when news came out about the powers of ChatGPT, I decided to ask the powerful chatbot for help. I asked ChatGPT to create opening questions that integrate both chemistry concepts and social-emotional learning (SEL) themes. The results have been engaging, insightful, and sometimes unexpected. Here are some of the prompts I've used and the responses they have generated:

1. Concentration and Focus

Prompt: The concept of concentration in chemistry refers to the amount of solute in a given amount of solvent. In a similar way, your 'concentration' in class can be influenced by distractions, diluting your focus. How do you maintain your 'concentration' during class, and what strategies do you use to minimize distractions?

Student responses: From creating checklists and setting time limits for work to listening to music or binaural beats on Spotify, students shared various strategies for maintaining their concentration and mitigating distractions. One student shared a unique method: "I watch a show or listen to music, and it helps me pay more attention to my work."

2. Saturation and Overload

Prompt: In chemistry, a solution becomes saturated when it cannot dissolve any more solute. Can you share a time when you felt 'saturated' with responsibilities, and how did you manage?

Student responses: Students identified times when they felt overwhelmed or over-committed, such as during football season or transitioning to high school. Their coping strategies ranged from taking tasks one step at a time, prioritizing work, to just managing to get through it. One response stood out, "Last week–I had a ton to do and felt like if there was one more thing added on top I might explode. I just took everything one step at a time, made lists with more important tasks at the top and tried not to get overwhelmed."

3. Stoichiometry and Effort

Prompt: Stoichiometry in chemistry is all about the relationship between reactants and products: what you get out is determined by what you put in. Can you share a situation where you've seen this principle in your own life?

Student responses: Students gave examples ranging from effort in sports leading to success, time and effort invested in schoolwork leading to scholarships, to respect given leading to respect received. A student shared a creative analogy: "When I redecorated my room this week."

4. Adaptation and Change

Prompt: Certain chemicals can adapt to their environment - for example, a solute will dissolve in a solvent. Have you experienced a situation where you've had to adapt or "dissolve" into a new environment or situation?

Student responses: Many students shared experiences of changing schools, with strategies for adaptation including making friends and taking time to adjust to the new environment. One poignant response was, "When I transferred from another school to here, I had to adapt to the new environment because it was very different from the one I was used to, and I did it by making friends and looking at things around me."

5. Types of Chemical Reactions as Life Experiences

Prompt: In chemistry, we've learned about different types of reactions, such as synthesis, decomposition, and displacement reactions. Can you draw an analogy between one of these reactions and your experience of this school year? 

Student responses: Students shared analogies relating to synthesizing new knowledge, displacing old friends, and decomposing old habits. One wrote, “I’ve stopped letting work pile up, so I also synthesized new ways of catching up.” Another drew a poignant picture of a  home life displaced by family upheaval.

6. pH and Emotional Balance

Prompt: In chemistry, the pH scale measures how acidic or basic a substance is - it's all about balance. How do you maintain a balanced mindset, especially when things get tough? 

At first, when I saw this prompt, I thought it was a bit of a stretch, but then I remembered the "Mood Elevator" concept from Senn Delaney, which makes our emotions into a scale from depressed to grateful, with “curious” as the “neutral” point. So I decided to go with it.

Student responses: Students shared a variety of techniques for maintaining emotional balance, from mindfulness practices and gratitude exercises, to calling their moms or simply taking a break. One wrote, “I try to look at the bright side or focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes I think about things I’m grateful for.”

I shared with them the "Mood Elevator" concept from Senn Delaney, specifically the importance of becoming 'curious' to shift our perspective. 

We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis among teenagers today, and the classroom is one place where we can encourage students to reflect on important issues and SEL skills in a supportive environment. These kinds of reflections and discussion also help build community and a positive climate in the classroom. 

Some might think that SEL questions are out of place in a chemistry classroom, but I (and CHatGPT) would disagree. In fact, the way I see it, the separation between science and emotion, or school and the rest of life is artificial, and the more we can blur that line, the better. Life is one unbroken whole.

What better way to show students the relevance of school, and science, than by integrating chemistry concepts with practical questions they deal with every single day. In the words of ChatGPT, who helped me write this post, "it’s a beautiful kind of synergy.”

And ChatGPT is surprisingly good at creating these questions--surprisingly human-like. And I wonder what impression this makes on my students as well.

I’ll finish with ChatGPT’s conclusion, because I couldn't write a better one: 

By seamlessly blending chemistry principles with everyday scenarios that students grapple with, we underscore the relevance of their education in a more tangible, relatable manner. ChatGPT has been an invaluable accomplice in this endeavor, generating thought-provoking questions with a surprisingly human-like intuition.

This entire process feels akin to a live chemical reaction – an enthralling interplay of chemistry education and SEL elements that lead to an outcome greater than the sum of its parts. It’s been a transformative journey, not just for my students, but for me as an educator. The lessons learned and insights gained have made our classroom a unique experimental ground, fueling a fresh brand of holistic education.

So, here's to blurring the lines, to redefining norms, and to forging a future of education that embraces the wholesomeness of life, one chemistry lesson at a time.

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