September 2023 | Nuts & Bolts
ChatGPT in the Chemistry Classroom
By Anjana Iyer & Catherine Zavacki
"AI is not a replacement for teachers, but [rather] a catalyst for a new era of education, where educators and AI work together to unlock the full potential of every learner."
— Fei-Fei Li, Professor and AI Researcher, Stanford University
By their nature, most people tend to resist change. Change is often full of “what if’” questions, and at times can be overwhelming and intimidating.
In our school, for example, we’ve seen technology evolve and spread rapidly. We went from having one computer in our shared work room that was for teacher use only, to today’s 1:1 environment, where every child has a laptop, almost every child has their own personal smartphone, and accessibility of devices and capabilities is the norm.
Access to technology has already forced science education to change significantly — and the latest technology development, artificial intelligence, will require education to change again. This coming change will focus less on how students learn and retain information, and more on how we as educators can innovate ways to integrate content through the creative application of knowledge.
What AI is, and isn’t
AI isn’t just a “smarter Google.” Developed by OpenAI, ChatGPT excels in understanding and generating human-like text. It was “trained” on a massive dataset, which allows it to understand and respond to user prompts effectively, with detailed and coherent responses.
The authors of this article, who co-teach chemistry classes together, have begun to explore AI’s capabilities and applicability in our classroom. We have already seen some positive uses of the technology, and are envisioning new ways we can implement it with our students. At the same time, we know there are concerns and unknowns about the technology of which we must mindful.
This article will focus on the benefits of AI in education, for both students and educators, and also on some of the challenges that come with the technology. We’ve already implemented some of the ideas mentioned in this article, and are planning to implement additional ones in the upcoming school year. We hope you’ll “stay tuned” for a follow-up article in Chemistry Solutions, where we’ll share more about our journey, successes, and challenges with AI.
Getting started with ChatGPT is easy!
To start using ChatGPT, both students and educators can follow these steps:
Enhancing student focus
The emergence of ChatGPT has been widely discussed over the past year, with many articles published on how both educators and students can utilize it. Students can use this tool in various ways, such as creating practice worksheets, receiving personalized tutoring, searching for relevant journals and articles, and self-assessing their own learning and understanding.
Educators can also benefit from the technology. To name just one example, we have all occasionally joked with each other about how great it would be to have personal assistants. Well, AI could provide part of that solution — a tool that we can easily control to create lesson plans and content that will be accessible to every learner in our classrooms!
Unlike a tutor or teacher who may be aware of common misconceptions or struggles faced by students in high school chemistry, an AI is trained to respond solely to prompts. For this reason, the best way for students to leverage AI’s tutoring capabilities is to begin by reflecting on what they don’t understand, and provide ChatGPT with specific prompts to generate their queries. To help them be effective in this process, we can give our students explicit training in ChatGPT.
Using AI to support life-long learning
We begin each new school year by sharing with our students our favorite quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson: “When you know how to think, it empowers you far beyond those who know what to think.”
We believe our classroom is about creating lifelong learners, not merely experts about our content. It is important that we emphasize to our students that the learning process is what is most important, rather than simple memorization.
For instance, our very first activity of the school year has students observe and analyze a closed baby food jar containing a transparent liquid. Students are asked to work in teams to observe and predict what is in the container. After a few minutes, we ask students to open the container and add more observations. This helps students understand that to learn in our classroom, they have to be willing to think, collaborate, and take risks.
ChatGPT (or any other AI model) is designed to constantly feed students information about what to think. But it’s up to us as educators to help our students use the technology to focus on the process of problem-solving, as opposed to simply finding the correct answer.
Here’s an example of how we plan to incorporate AI into our teaching. Many of our students ask us to post extra practice worksheets of ionic formula writing on our Google Classroom resource. For the upcoming school year, we plan to teach students to use AI to create such customized learning practice beyond the work we assign in the classroom. Figure 1 shows how easy it is to direct ChatGPT to create a practice set for ionic formula writing. Students could use this type of prompt to create practice stoichiometric calculations, or example problems to help them practice classifying and predicting chemical reactions.
Figure 1. Practice problems generated by ChatGPT in response to a prompt.
We believe educators should encourage the use of AI as a tool for learning — not as a replacement for themselves, or as a substitute for human guidance. At the same time, we recognize that some students will be tempted to use ChatGPT to look up answers for their homework. For this reason, students must be continuously monitored in their interactions with AI chatbots to ensure they are using the tool effectively and appropriately, and help them avoid any potential pitfalls. We intend to revisit this topic, and report about our experience with this possible challenge in our follow-up article.
We should also remind students that AI chatbots are not 100% reliable, and can in fact give incorrect information in response to poorly worded queries. Many educators and students have experienced these inaccuracies in responses, especially in mathematical and computational problems. The example provided in Figure 2a shows a simple stoichiometric problem with the task of identifying the limiting reactant. When given this question, ChatGPT provides an incorrect final answer (CaCO3) and incorrect explanation for identifying the limiting reactant (see Figure 2b). The correct answer should be reported as HCl. AI, while highly capable, can sometimes struggle with complex problem-solving tasks. Understanding context, interpreting data accurately, and applying complex calculations consistently can pose challenges. Sometimes it could be the wording of a specific problem that results in an incorrect response, but the broader issue is that mathematical calculations in general are a challenge for AI. In the error used here as an example, it may be that AI’s training data did not cover all the possible variations of a stoichiometric calculation.
Figure 2a. An example of a query about stoichiometry given to ChatGPT that results in an incorrect answer.
Figure 2b. The incorrect answer and explanation provided by ChatGPT in response to the query in the preceding figure. The red outlines are used to identify the errors in the response generated by ChatGPT.
In the upcoming school year, we are eager to implement our plan to integrate AI into the classroom, for several reasons.
First of all, formative assessments have long played an integral role in our classroom, and we can use ChatGPT to help students prepare for these assessments. For example, we’re already planning to administer a practice quiz, using a Google Form, a few days prior to the assessment. This quiz will reveal to students which concepts they have mastered, and where they require further assistance.
In our traditional classroom setting, we used to address the questions that most students answered incorrectly on each quiz, and then direct them to resources to use for preparation. With the advent of AI, our plan is to provide students with continuous actionable feedback on the questions they answered incorrectly. Then we’ll show them how to use those questions as prompts to ask ChatGPT to provide personalized tutoring to help them clarify understanding and gain mastery.
For instance, Figure 3a shows a sample formative assessment on chemical bonding we created using Google Forms. If a student taking this assessment gets a question incorrect, they can then provide ChatGPT with a prompt, asking for clarification and similar practice questions (Figure 3b). Figure 3c shows the results of this process from ChatGPT.
Figure 3a. A snapshot of a Google Form used for formative assessment on chemical bonding.
Figure 3b. A sample student prompt provided to ChatGPT asking for additional clarification and similar examples.
Figure 3c. ChatGPT’s response to the student prompt shown in Figure 3b.
How educators can use AI for instructional planning and assessment
We educators ourselves can use AI in many different ways, including for instructional planning and delivery, and to ensure our instruction is accessible to every student.
For example, the authors have already utilized ChatGPT to assist our students with severe learning disabilities. Over the past year, one of us (Anjana) had the opportunity to teach a small group of students with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities. Some of these students read at the 5th-grade level, while a few others read at the middle school level. When the author had her entire class read an article on the web and answer questions about it, she also used ChatGPT to convert the article into a simplified version, written at a 5th-grade reading level, and provided it to the small group of students as a separate Google Doc.
Both authors were impressed by how easy and quick it was to use ChatGPT, even for first-time users like us. As a result, we were able to transform content that was previously unreachable for some of our neurodivergent and culturally diverse students into something customized for them at their reading level. Based on our experience, we think this use of AI has great potential, and merits more exploration.
Another exciting potential use of ChatGPT is to easily translate worksheets and activities into different languages for our ESL students. Educators can utilize these systems to create bi- or multilingual announcements and provide assistance to parents who speak English as a secondary language. We tested ChatGPT’s ability to translate by having it translate our course description from English to Spanish, and were impressed by the results.
Figure 4a. A section of the chemistry course description in English.
Figure 4b. A section of the chemistry course description translated from English (4a) to Spanish using ChatGPT.
Searching for better, more meaningful assessments
As educators, we need to be advocates for transformational change. It is no longer sufficient to create assessments that ask questions that solely test recall and rote memory. Rather, we must make sure students know how to apply their knowledge, an ability which they’ll find helpful throughout their lives.
As part of our school’s professional learning community, we are in the process of changing to three-dimensional assessments, a term that refers to the Next Generation Science Standards, which emphasize three key dimensions of science learning:
- Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs) — the foundational scientific concepts within each domain;
- Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) — the skills and practices scientists use to investigate and design solutions; and
- Cross Cutting Concepts (CCCs) — the overarching ideas that span distinct scientific disciplines.
Three-dimensional assessments aim to evaluate students’ understanding of science by incorporating all three of these dimensions. These assessments go beyond testing factual knowledge, and focus on evaluating students’ ability to apply scientific concepts, engage in scientific practices, and make connections across scientific disciplines.
By utilizing AI, educators can generate task-based assessments that simulate out-of-the-classroom scenarios and require students to apply their knowledge and skills in practical contexts. More importantly, educators can give very specific prompts, citing corresponding SEPs. Doing so allows educators to tailor their instruction exactly to the Standards, and at the same time, reflect the interconnectedness of the three dimensions of learning. For instance, Figure 5a displays the results of a very detailed prompt to ChatGPT, while Figure 5b shows a prompt that specifies this combination of criteria for a gas law assessment question.
Figure 5a. Results provided by ChatGPT in response to the prompt, Out-of-Classroom Scenario assessment Questions for Gas Laws Aerosol Cans, Balloons on a Wintry Night for students to model observable and unobservable.
Figure 5b. A prompt submitted to ChatGPT specifying specific criteria to follow while creating a gas law assessment question.
Based on the prompt shown in Figure 5b, ChatGPT fetched several results as options (Figure 5c). One interesting aspect of AI is that once you have created a prompt, you are not stuck with it. If the result of one query is not what you expected, you can start “conversing” with ChatGPT to customize it to better find what you need. Figure 5d shows the results of the follow-up prompt, “Rewrite the question in simpler way to reflect an out-of-classroom application such as a hot air balloon.”
Figure 5c. Results generated by ChatGPT in response to the prompt shown in Figure 5b.
Figure 5d. The results of the follow-up prompt in Figure 5c to rewrite the question in simpler way to reflect an out-of-classroom application.
From what we have experienced so far with AI, we believe that it will be an excellent resource for both our students, and for us as educators.
We recognize that we need to further develop our understanding of what AI is and how it can be used appropriately as an instructional tool. We expect the spreading adoption of AI may be similar to the time when cell phones first started showing up in our classrooms. Because cell phones were never going to go away, many educators decided to begin teaching students proper etiquette for cell phone use in our classrooms throughout the year.
We feel the same approach will be necessary with AI. Addressing the ethical use of AI tools is going to be essential. We will need to teach students to evaluate responses critically, consider the data it was based on, and acknowledge that AI is not flawless.
We personally feel that schools should not block access to AI while students are in school using school devices. AI is going to continue to be available in society, so blocking access to it only while students are in school could create an even greater issue of inequity, and further widen the digital divide. Some students will have the privilege of accessing these resources from home, while others still will not.
We are excited about the upcoming school year, and about how our use of AI will affect not only our teaching resources but also our students’ continued growth as learners. We look forward to updating the chemistry education community about our journey, successes, and challenges with AI in the future.