SSU Professor's Chemwiki Joins The Fight Against High Cost of Science Textbooks

stevefarmerchemwiki.jpgIf you're paying more than $100 for a textbook there really is something wrong," says SSU chemistry professor Steven Farmer, who has joined a group of university science faculty working to create no-cost online textbooks.

Farmer is working towards finishing the second half of an organic chemistry textbook to be plugged into a ChemWiki at the online Dynamic Textbook Project.

He plans to use the ChemWiki for his organic chemistry class in Spring 2014, hoping to save more than sixty SSU students the need to purchase a $300 textbook.

A single general chemistry textbook for undergraduates can cost hundreds of dollars, with new (and more expensive) editions appearing regularly.

Farmer says most of the content is well established and is standardized by the American Chemical Society. Some of the material hasn't changed in decades, if not centuries and he wonders why the increasing cost is justified.

The project began with Professor Delmar Larsen at UCDavis whose ChemWiki was launched in 2008 on a shoestring budget. It now nets over 2 million visitors a month, making it the most visited domain among the university's websites.

"All the content we need for the first two years of undergraduate chemistry already exists online -- so we went out and asked for it," Larsen said. When authors responded positively, Larsen and his student wiki-editors worked to adapt the material into the wiki format.

ChemWiki recently received its first major funding -- a grant of $250,000 from the National Science Foundation to a consortium including UC Davis, Sonoma State University, Diablo Valley College, Contra Costa Community College, Hope College (Michigan) and the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Farmer has a $27,392 National Science Foundation grant to fund his efforts to generate organic chemistry content for the ChemWiki at SSU.

In spring quarter 2014, half of a UC Davis general chemistry class, about 200 students, will use the standard textbook as their principal reference: The rest, hearing the same lectures from the same professors and studying the same material, will use the ChemWiki.

The results will be evaluated by researchers from the Center for Education and Evaluation Services at the UC Davis School of Education.

A similar effort will be performed at SSU, Farmer says.


The ChemWiki project is a collaborative approach from UC Davis toward chemistry education where an Open Access textbook environment is constantly being written and re-written partly by students and partly by faculty members resulting in a free chemistry textbook.

The online texts are referred to as wikis due to the process in which they are created. All content creation and revision is supplied by students and faculty.

The result is that specific wikis can be built through collaboration, creating online material specially tailored to a professor's pedagogy. The beauty of the Chemwiki is that individual faculty can continually tailor it to their own instructional needs and desires, says Farmer.

He is also using the ChemWiki as a tool to help train future high school chemistry teachers. Students who are interested in teaching chemistry as a career have been helping to provide content for the ChemWiki as part of their undergraduate research experience at SSU.

In addition to generating organic chemistry content, these students have also been writing and posting chemistry cases studies on the ChemWiki. Case studies are stories that are chosen for their ability to connect the content of chemistry courses to everyday life. They have been shown to enhance curriculum and improve the students' attitudes toward the course content by showing relevancy.

The ChemWiki is the pilot STEMWiki of the Dynamic Textbook Project, which is a multi-institutional collaborative venture to develop the next generation of open-access E-texts to improve STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) at all levels of higher learning.

Other Dynamic Textbook Project STEMWikis include the BioWiki, the GeoWiki, the StatWiki, the PhysWiki and the MathWiki. Find more details at:


Size of chemistry textbooks from 1909 to 2012. (Steve Farmer graphic)


Farmer has conducted his own research showing that the size of organic chemistry textbooks has increased in a linear fashion since the early 1900s. He says the size of organic chemistry textbooks have been inflated by publishers who use wide margins, glossy photos and other graphic elements to increase the girth of the textbook but not necessarily the contents. Farmer says that the larger size of textbooks are used by publishers as a justification for their excessive cost.

The collection of chemistry textbooks since the early 1900s shows the ever growing size of the textbooks from one inch in width in the early 1900s to almost three inches in width currently.

In the future, Farmer says he will be investigating how often publishing companies produce new editions of organic chemistry textbooks. New editions make the older versions obsolete and cause students to buy new instead of used textbooks. Buying used textbooks is one of the avenues students have traditionally used to reduce textbook costs.

ABOVE, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Steve Farmer with his textbook collection showing the increase in size of textbooks since the early 1900s. (Photo by Jean Wasp)

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