Geoff Thomas

Geoff Thomas

Chemistry/College of Science


Top-Down Teaching: Utilizing demonstrations and consumer applications to promote student engagement and uncover core-concepts in the classroom.

Faculty Mentor: Laya Kesner - Chemistry/College of Science


Teaching methods utilized in modern science curriculums focus largely on a "bottom-up" teaching methodology. Wherein, basic core concepts are taught first, laying an academic foundation for a subject, which are then built upon more complex ideas. This methodology, while rational, is outdated and un-conforming with a rising generations preferred means of knowledge acquisition.

In an era of Internet searches and mobile communications, more modern students are comfortable leaning in a fundamentally different top-down approach. The top-down approach to teaching introduces complex and applicable examples first as a means to generate interest in uncovering the hidden interworking and core concepts behind the examples. This approach mimics a natural path of knowledge acquisition when observing an intriguing real-life phenomenon and reverse engineering out the concepts behind it.

One example of this is color bleaching. Bleach is a chemical that almost everyone is familiar with and its properties to remove color from stains and clothing is well known. However how and why bleach works the way it does is well understood by much fewer. A lesson in organic chemistry about alkenes could begin by hanging up a blue shirt, grabbing the student's attention, and throwing bleach on the shirt and watching the color leach out of it. The question could then be posed "Why did this happen?" From here, the lecture would build down to the core concepts of what are alkenes and the chemistry they undergo.


The chosen test course for this hypothesis is Elementary Chemistry (CHEM1120), a common pre-requisite course for allied health professionals.   Implementing this top-down approach to teaching, TA led discussion will begin with an intriguing applicable demonstration. These demonstrations will be chosen and developed such that their mechanisms of action will align with the concepts to be covered in lecture and will promote engagement, discussion, and involvement.

Much akin to solving a puzzle, students will have the opportunity to see a clear and interesting application of a concept and then place together basic conceptual pieces to arrive at final "picture" over the course of a class. Ideally these examples would be presented immediately preceding a lecture. However due to the limited scope of this project, this work focuses on the top-down approach's power in a discussion section.

One such example is demonstrated in an introduction to TLC (Thin layer chromatography). Taking a sharpie marker and writing "Chem 1120" on the instructors arm and asking the class "have you ever wondered what makes a permanent marker permanent?" promotes a discussion on hyrophobisity one of the underlying properties behind TLC. The instructor then guides this discussion to its underling principles and then reapplies these principles to the analytical technique of TLC.


Utilizing a teaching style more native to students, a greater interest in the course is gained. This manifests as an increase in lecture attendance, participation, improved study habits and test scores, as well as a more engaging leaning environment. This teaching approach has the potential to extrapolate exceedingly well to other scientific disciplines as well as other forms academics in general. The effectiveness of this new method will be assessed by project specific evaluations and their comparisons to those who were not exposed to a top-down method of teaching.


Geoff Thomas - Poster