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We see an opportunity to combine an advanced Molecular Workbench model with Pedagogica and WISE to address an important educational problem: the growing gap between science and technology in the nation's two-year college technical programs.

The central role of American two-year colleges in American education is too often overlooked. They provide a pathway to advancement for adults, as well as for the unemployed, veterans, immigrants, welfare mothers, and the poor. Two-year colleges currently enroll 42% of all first time college students as well as 46% of all minority students in higher education. Close to half of all students, furthermore, who attend four-year colleges, begin their studies at two-year colleges (Foote 1997). Many two-year college students enter specialty programs in preparation for technical careers in areas such as health, biotechnologies, photonics, networking, and avionics. Health professions and related sciences and engineering are among the four most popular degrees areas. Significant numbers of science teachers are trained in two-year colleges (Adelman, 1997).

Two-year colleges are far more affordable than most colleges and universities, not only because their tuition is lower, but also because students usually commute, saving the costs of room and board. After only two years, their technical programs promise a job that usually represents a significant advance in pay, security, advancement potential, and satisfaction. This pathway to employment is in such stark contrast to the liberal arts BA that many college graduates go on to enroll in two-year technical programs in order to earn a marketable skill. (See, for example, Baker, et al, 1994; Grubb, 1996)

Two-year colleges offer an amazing range of technical programs. For instance, Austin Community College's Allied Health program offers specialties such as Medical Laboratory Technology, Pharmacy Technician, and Phlebotomy Technician .

There are increasing demands on courses in technical programs at the two-year colleges. Students must learn more every year, the content is increasingly complex, and technologies are always advancing. Pressure is felt on basic science courses to equip students with more fundamental content and on specialty programs to provide more particular content. In the little time available in a two-year program, there is a tendency for the gap to widen between the fundamental science that can be taught and student understanding of the applications of science on which many technologies are based. While more employers are collaborating with educational institutions, they often have their own agendas, and the distance from learning core science increases (NSF, 1996).

Our approach of using serious science models that have been embedded in scaffolded learning activities can help bridge this gap. It can do this by connecting the real world many of these students will encounter in their applied work with fundamental science concepts in ways that were never before possible. These computational models can help students acquire powerful mental models as they work their way, through investigations that capture the qualitative features of complex systems, without the need for extensive abstract theory or advanced mathematics. Having acquired these powerful mental models, students can then better understand the core concepts in their field, better address problems that they encounter on the job, and better equip themselves to understand new technologies that will inevitably be adopted in the near future.

A solid understanding of atoms, molecules, and their interactions allows students to grasp what lies at the heart of modern biology, chemistry, and physics. That same understanding will assist them in the technical specialties taught at two-year colleges. Ensembles of interacting atoms and molecules determine many thermal, chemical, and biological phenomena that technical students will encounter such as phase change, diffusion, osmosis, solubility, surface tension, equilibria, reactions, catalysis, biological specificity, hydrophobicity, and self-assembly. A solid, intuitive understanding of these phenomena would be most helpful to students in many technical fields. For instance, medical technicians handling a new dialysis machine will do better to understand osmosis, which has a simple atomic-scale explanation. Even students in cosmetology might profit from realizing that cell turgor depends on the same phenomenon. Students training for work with electrophoresis, to take another example, will be more competent if they understand the atomic basis of molecular migration.

The relationships between the individual atoms and molecules, their ensembles, and related macroscopic phenomena are difficult to understand, and not well treated in either courses in the basic sciences or in technical specialties. We believe it is now possible to bring powerful core science learning to two-year colleges, using scientific modeling and a computer-guided inquiry that stresses interactivity and careful, step-wise learning using our combination of Molecular Workbench software, Pedagogica, and WISE.

Figure 3. WISE provides a rich, friendly, Web-based environment that is designed to support student inquiry.

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EIA-0219345. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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