Cooking with Chemistry, Part 1

Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I’m sure many of you are planning on cooking up some delicious meals to share with friends and family.  Because baking involves a large amount of chemistry we are bringing you the answers to some frequently asked chemically-related cooking questions over the next few days.
Question: Are Copper Bowls Really Better for Whipping Egg Whites?

Answer: Yes, the bowl you use makes a difference when you are whipping egg whites. Copper bowls produce a yellowish, creamy foam that is harder to overbeat than the foam produced using glass or stainless steel bowls. When you whisk egg whites in a copper bowl, some copper ions migrate from the bowl into the egg whites. The copper ions form a yellow complex with one of the proteins in eggs, conalbumin. The conalbumin-copper complex is more stable than the conalbumin alone, so egg whites whipped in a copper bowl are less likely to denature (unfold).

When air is whisked into egg whites, the mechanical action denatures the proteins in the whites. The denatured proteins coagulate, stiffening the foam and stabilizing the air bubbles. If the foam is overbeaten in a non-copper bowl, eventually the proteins become completely denatured and coagulate into clumps. There is no going back from the clumpy mess to nice foamy whites, so overbeaten whites are usually discarded.

If a copper bowl is used, then fewer protein molecules are free to denature and coagulate, because some are tied up in conalbumin-copper complexes. In addition to forming complexes with conalbumin, the copper may also react with sulfur-containing groups on other proteins, further stabilizing the egg proteins. Although the iron and zinc found in other metal bowls also form complexes with conalbumin, these complexes don’t make the foam more stable. When glass or steel bowls are used, cream of tartar may be added to egg whites to stabilize the whites.


Please note that although copper is toxic in large amounts, copper bowls are safe for whipping egg whites and cream!

(Borrowed from

Friday Funny

A photon checks into a hotel, and is asked if he needs any help with his luggage.

He replies, “No thanks, I’m traveling light.”

Meet Our Content Experts: Prabha Ramakrishnan

We are fortunate at WebAssign to have a strong team of content experts who work to direct the focus of our product so our customers get the best experience possible.  Prabha Ramakrishnan is an integral member of this team, focusing on our physics content, and will elaborate further on her impressive experience herself.

Even as I made plans to retire from the Physics Department at North Carolina State University, I knew that I could not completely retire from my involvement in education.  I joined WebAssign in July 2008 and have since enjoyed working part time as a Physics Content Expert. This has continued to provide me the necessary intellectual stimulation as well as the interaction with a highly dedicated and enthusiastic team of co-workers which I enjoy. I have crossed over from being a user to becoming part of the WebAssign team.

After a Bachelors and Masters degree in Physics from the University of Madras, India and several years of teaching experience in two and four year colleges also in India, I enrolled in the doctoral program at North Carolina State University. After receiving my PhD in Nuclear Physics, I joined the faculty in the Physics department. As a graduate student I was awarded the Best Graduate Teaching Assistant award and later as faculty was honored to be  inducted into the Academy of Outstanding Teachers at North Carolina State University.

My career at North Carolina State University had two phases; what I call the pre and post sailing days. In 1991 I resigned from my job, sold our house and all personal belongings to spend the next 5 years living aboard our 37-foot sailboat. My husband and I, accompanied by our black lab, sailed the east coast, the Chesepeake Bay, the Florida Keys and the Bahamas.

Once back on land, we lived in Carteret County and I taught Physics at Carteret Community College. While there, I applied for and received a mini grant from the college so students in my class (all 15 of them!!) could use WebAssign. Little did I know that I would one day work at WebAssign!

While I enjoyed life at the coast, I was very happy to get back to Raleigh and teach at NCSU. This time around, I coordinated the Introductory Engineering Physics courses and was also very involved in working with the TAs in the introductory physics labs. As course coordinator, I created and deployed assignments on WebAssign for multi-section courses, collated and managed lab grades using the WebAssign Gradebook and generally served as the go to person for faculty having any questions regarding using WebAssign.

The wandering lust is still very much in my blood. Now my husband and I along with our 3 cats take one or two extended trips a year in our RV.  We recently returned from a wonderful time in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. While on the road I take my laptop with me and continue to fulfill my responsibilities as content provider for WebAssign.

When I am not working, I spend time in my home studio where I create art quilts, knit, bead, as well as weave baskets. There are not enough hours in a day; I am busier now than when I worked full time!

Tips & Tricks: Creating Polling Questions

Now that you are more than halfway through the semester, it might be a good time to poll your students for feedback.  WebAssign lets you create poll questions on any topic you wish.  For example you might be interested asking your students  which three things they like best about the class and which three things they would like changed.  After you have received their answers, share the results with the entire class using the Summary link in the Assignment Scores view. Many times there are surprising suggestions about how to improve the class!

Your students’ responses, marks, and scores are shown normally for polling questions, as per your assignment settings. The only difference is that polling questions are marked correct for any response. Your students receive no credit if they do not respond to the question.  You can configure one or more question parts as polling questions in order to grant students credit for any response. Polling questions can be used to gather opinions from your students  as well as to record observational information, such as the results of an experiment, when any response should be considered correct.

Please refer to our example question below and  learn more details about creating your own poll questions by visiting our step by step help page here.

Question Code

QID: 1930369
Name: Polling Question Example
Mode: Multi-Mode…PB
What three things do you like best about this class?
What three things would you like to change?

<EQN $size=40; ''>any response
any response
any response
any response
any response
any response

Friday Funny!

Q: What happened to the man who was stopped for having sodium chloride and a nine-volt in his car?

A: He was booked for a salt and battery.

We want to hear your science/math/teaching jokes!  Send them in today!

Make Your Voice Heard Contest: Update!

Thank you to everyone who has entered our contest so far!  We have seen some great suggestions of features that would help you be a more effective teacher.  For more contest information please read our previous blog post here.  To add your own ideas to our growing list go to Uservoice or the Facebook feedback page to get started today. This is your chance to speak directly to the developers at WebAssign and let your voice be heard!

A few of the submitted suggestions are for features that WebAssign is already capable of doing.  I’ve highlighted them below and hope you will find these features helpful.

“I would like WebAssign to…add an email alert when I get a message or help request from a student.”

You can configure WebAssign to send you an email message that lets you know when you receive an Ask Your Teacher request, a private message, or an extension request.  This makes it easier for you to keep up with student requests, because you do not have to log in to WebAssign to see if any of your students are waiting for help or need an extension.  Once you receive the notification email, you can log in to WebAssign to respond to the message by going to your Communication Home page or clicking the Mailbox icon on the toolbar.

To receive notifications about Private Messages in your external email account:

  1. From the toolbar, click Communication to go to your Communication Home page.
  2. If needed, select a class from the drop-down menu.
  3. Click Private Messages > Messages.
  4. Click Settings.
  5. Select Forward Private Messages to my Email.
  6. Click Apply.

This same forwarding can be applied to Extension Requests and and Ask Your Teacher messages.  Read the step by step instructions here!

“I would like WebAssign to…create randomized tests/homework from a set bank of questions.”

WebAssign addresses this feature request with our question pools.  A question pool is a list of questions from which a specified subset of questions are randomly selected for each student’s assignment. You can use question pools to give your students several different versions of the same assignment.

Please review the step by step instructions for setting this up here.

When using this feature, please note our best practice suggestions to ensure fairness to all of your students by making each question you choose for a given question pool:

  • have the same difficulty
  • have the same number of parts
  • is the same kind of question (multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc.)
  • (multiple-choice questions) has the same number of choices
  • have roughly the same time estimate as other questions

“I would like WebAssign to…show how much time students are spending on each assignment as total hours.”

This feature is not yet available, but is scheduled to be  ready sometime this spring!  After our next feature release the amount of time students spend on each assignment will be displayed on the Scores or Scoreview pages in the application. This information will be updated daily.

Meet Our Content Experts: Marilyn McCollum

We continue the introduction of our visioneer team with our math content expert,  Marilyn McCollum.  WebAssign’s Visioneer Team is comprised of experts in the field of chemistry, physics, math, and user experience and design who will work to direct the focus of our product so our customers get the best experience possible.  I’m pleased to let Marilyn fill us in on some of her background and achievements.

It only took two weeks of retirement in January 2009 from teaching in the North Carolina State University Department of Mathematics to realize I needed social and intellectual interaction with younger professionals.  Working part-time as a Math Content Contributor at WebAssign is perfect for me to be surrounded with amazing talent who challenge me with their innovations and enthusiasm to help teachers teach and students learn.

My BS and MS degrees are from NCSU, where I taught continuously for over 27 years.  I served as course coordinator most of those years in Mathematics of Finance for which I wrote the book using technology for problem solving in the late 1980s; it is still being used by all students in its edited version.  I also coordinated courses in Precalculus, and non-engineering Calculus.  Around 1985 and for about 15 years, I wrote supplementary manuals to accompany four distance-learning courses I offered through the UNC Friday Center where assignments were mailed.  At NCSU, I started offering the same four courses via my VHS video lectures that were mailed to students, which were eventually offered on DVDs and then online.  

In 1998, working with a NCSU co-worker, we wrote and coded the first WebAssign questions for Mathematics of Finance and for Precalculus in one summer and that forever changed the way the NCSU Department of Mathematics offered homework.   Currently, my distance interactive online Mathematics of Finance course uses WebAssign for homework as well as for timed and password-protected tests.  During my years at NCSU, I applied for and received many grants for improving teaching and incorporating technology.

One of my great joys from 1985 until I retired was developing and directing the annual TA Teacher Training Workshop for the NCSU Mathematics Department.  In the late 80s, this week-long training received national recognition. For three years, invitations from Joint Mathematics Meetings were extended to present and offer workshops to share our training tools.

Two awards that were very encouraging to me before I retired were the Provost’s 2003-2004 Award for Outstanding Service in Support of Teaching and Learning and the University’s 2007-2008 Outstanding Teacher Award and designated member of the Academy of Outstanding Teachers.

I have been blessed with an enriched life that just gets better and better.  In my spare time, I enjoy keeping my 2-year old granddaughter, baking yeast breads and desserts, traveling to areas that have interesting histories, and briskly walking 5 miles a couple times per week  just to make sure I can still do it!