W. Stephen McNeil

Associate Professor

Office: FIP 352
Phone: 250.807.8751
Email: stephen.mcneil@ubc.ca

Research Summary

Chemistry education: alternative conceptions of advanced bonding models, impacts and effectiveness of active and collaborative learning activities, affective learning outcomes.

Courses & Teaching

Introductory chemistry, molecular structure and bonding, bioinorganic chemistry


Dr. McNeil comes to UBC’s Okanagan Campus by way of the other University of British Columbia campus, the University of Washington, and Douglas College, whereby he has acquired an inordinate fondness for organometallic reaction mechanisms, well-crafted Americanos, and active-learning teaching methods. His ongoing interests include hiking the Okanagan’s many scenic trails, the development and assessment of innovative active-learning and student-engagement strategies, the challenges associated with the learning of advanced chemical bonding models, science communication and chemistry outreach, and esoteric and expensive board games.


Teaching Website


PhD, University of British Columbia, 1995
BSc, University of British Columbia, 1991

Research Interests & Projects

The McNeil Research Group conducts chemistry education research by using our classrooms as our laboratories. We study the challenges associated with teaching and learning university-level chemistry, and we develop innovative learning strategies to address those challenges. Current research in the McNeil Group focuses on two principal areas.

Alternative Conceptions of Advanced Chemical Bonding Models

In educational research, alternative conceptions are defined as conceptual frameworks developed by students in the course of their learning that differ from consensus frameworks held by disciplinary experts. Such conceptual frameworks often involve students’ misunderstanding of key underlying principles. Because these frameworks form a basis of interpretation for any new information presented to the learner, they can prevent complete integration of new ideas with prior learning, in turn resulting in disconnects within a learner’s understanding, and preventing the learner from correctly applying concepts and principles to new problems.

In chemistry, various bonding models are used to explain and interpret various physical and chemical properties of molecules. A core learning outcome of any chemical sciences program is the ability to select and use an appropriate model of chemical bonding to rationalize such properties, both at the sub-microscopic scale of individual molecules and at the macroscopic scale of bulk matter, using symbols to represent different aspects of the molecule. This ability requires familiarity with a large array of bonding models (e.g. Lewis, VSEPR, valence bond theory, molecular orbital theory), each with its own sets of principles, symbolisms, and molecular properties the model is designed to explain. We propose that students who develop alternative conceptions in earlier, simpler models (e.g. ionic and covalent bonding, Lewis) not only have difficulty using those models correctly, but also are less likely to correctly integrate more complex models (e.g. valence bond theory, molecular orbital theory) into their understanding.

Through the use of semi-structured qualitative interviews, the immediate goals of this research project are to identify and categorize alternative conceptions exhibited by learners regarding the application of Lewis and valence bond theories to explain molecular properties. The long term goal of this project is the development of a reliable and validated concept inventory for advanced chemical bonding models. This tool will be used to measure the impacts of teaching and learning innovations designed to address representational competence with these models.

Box plot
Johnstone's Triangle
alternative conceptions bar chart

Impacts and Effectiveness of Collaborative Learning Resources

A large body of research has demonstrated that active learning and collaborative learning activities, such as those associated with flipped-class delivery, generally better support cognitive learning gains for students. However, less is understood about the potential of active learning to improve affective learning gains or metacognitive reflection, or how specific components or aspects of flipped-class instruction translate into cognitive learning gains for students.

We are undertaking a multi-instrument assessment of a wide range of active learning methods recently introduced into first-year general chemistry courses. These activities include in-class personal response systems (“clickers”), guided-inquiry assignments, flipped-class instructional videos and follow-up group assignments, collaborative two-stage testing, and framing contexts. These complementary assessment instruments will offer a model to assess the success of curriculum reform strategies aimed at human-centred, affective learning outcomes, in addition to cognitive learning gains.

likert scale bar chart

Student Training

Research students in the McNeil group gain experience with all aspects of running a discipline-based educational research project, including:

  • critical analysis of chemistry, education, and chemistry education literature
  • development of evidence-based educational resources and pedagogy
  • research question design
  • identification and application of theoretical frameworks, research methodology, and assessment instruments
  • acquisition of Research Ethics Board approval
  • both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis
  • and dissemination of results, including conference presentations and being encouraged to take an active role in developing and publishing their own research.

These projects allow research students to think critically and reflectively about their own learning, to develop a richer understanding of their own understanding of core chemistry concepts, to apply their own experiences in learning chemistry to promote the same learning in others, and to gain valuable problem solving and communication skills.

If you are interested in chemistry education research, and wish to explore opportunities for graduate or undergraduate research positions in the McNeil Research Group, please contact Dr. McNeil at stephen.mcneil@ubc.ca. Students with experience as tutors, teaching assistants, or Supplemental Learning leaders are especially encouraged to inquire about current research projects. Undergraduates should be aware of the deadlines for the Barber School Undergraduate Research Awards (typically late January).

Selected Publications & Presentations

Google Scholar

R. J. Petillion, W. S. McNeil. “Student Satisfaction with Synchronous Online Organic Chemistry Laboratories: Prerecorded Video vs. Livestream” J. Chem. Educ. 2021, 98, 2861-2869.

R. J. Petillion, W. S. McNeil. “Student Experiences of Emergency Remote Teaching: Impacts of Instructor Practice on Student Learning, Engagement, and Well-Being” J. Chem. Educ. 2020, 97, 2486-2493.

R. J. Petillion, W. S. McNeil. “Johnstone’s Triangle as a Pedagogical Framework for Flipped-Class Instructional Videos in Introductory Chemistry” J. Chem. Educ. 2020, 97, 1536–1542.

R. J. Petillion, T. K. Freeman, W. S. McNeil. “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as Thematic Framework for an Introductory Chemistry Curriculum” J. Chem. Educ. 2019, 96, 2845-2851.

W. S. McNeil. “The Inevitability of the Merely Improbable: Planning Ahead for Effective Large-Class Instruction”. In Strategies for Teaching Large Classes Effectively in Higher Education, C. D. Rawn, K. L. Kern, J. M. Golding, Eds.; Cognella: 2018.

W. B. Glover, C. M. Liberto, W. S. McNeil, S. A. Banack, P. R. Shipley, S. J. Murch. “Reactivity of β-Methylamino-L-alanine in Complex Sample Matrices Complicates Detection and Quantification by Mass Spectrometry” Anal. Chem. 201284, 7946-7953.

J. M. Madeira, N. Beloukhina, K. Boudreau, T. A. Boettcher, L. Gurley, D. G. Walker, W. S. McNeil, A. Klegeris. “Cobalt(II) β-ketoaminato complexes as novel inhibitors of neuroinflammation” Eur. J. Pharmacol2012676, 81-88.

R. A. Baillie, R. W. Y. Man, J. Y. K. Tsang, M. V. Shree, C. Chow, M. E. Thibault, B. O. Patrick, W. S. McNeil, and P. Legzdins.  “Intermolecular C-H Activations of Hydrocarbons Initiated by Cp*M(NO)(CH2CMe3)(η3-CH2CHCHPh) Complexes [M = Mo, W]”  Organometallics 201130, 6201-6217.

L. Gurley, N. Beloukhina, K. Boudreau, A. Klegeris, W. S. McNeil. “The Synthesis and Characterization of a Series of Cobalt(II) β-Ketoaminato Complexes and Their Cytotoxic Activity Towards Human Tumor Cell Lines” J. Inorg. Biochem. 2011105, 858-866.

T. Tran, C. Chow, A. C. Zimmerman, M. E. Thibault, B. O. Patrick, W. S. McNeil, P. Legzdins. “Differing Reactions of Functionalized Hydrocarbons with Cp*M(NO)(alkyl)(η3-allyl) Complexes of Molybdenum and Tungsten”  Organometallics 201130, 738-751.

A. E. Devantier, S. J. Murch, W. S. McNeil.  “Exploration and characterisation of novel bronze patinas derived from simple coordination complexes”  Dalton Trans. 201140, 614-622.

A. S. Abd-El-Aziz, P. O. Shipman, B. N. Boden, W. S. McNeil.  “Synthetic Methodologies and Properties of Organometallic and Coordination Macromolecules”  Prog. Polym. Sci. 201035, 714-836.

R. K. Sherwood, C. L. Kent, B. O. Patrick, W. S. McNeil.  “Controlled Radical Polymerisation of Methyl Acrylate Initiated by a Well-Defined Cobalt Alkyl Complex”  Chemical Commun.201046, 2456-2458.

S. P. Semproni, W. S. McNeil, R. A. Baillie, B. O. Patrick, C. F. Campana, P. Legzdins.  “Ground-state Electronic Asymmetry in Cp*W(NO)(η1-isonitrile)2 Complexes”  Organometallics201029, 867-875.

K. C. D. Robson, C. L. Kent, C. D. Phillips, W. S. McNeil.  “Synthesis and Characterisation of Bis(β-ketoaminato) Complexes of Cobalt(II) Dalton Trans. 201039, 2573-2578.

K. M. Smith, W. S. McNeil, A. S. Abd-El-Aziz.  “Organometallic-Mediated Radical Polymerization: Developing Well-Defined Complexes for Reversible Transition Metal–Alkyl Bond Homolysis”  Macromolec. Chem. Phys. 2010211, 10-16.

K. S. Santhosh-Kumar, Y. Li, Y. Gnanou, U. Baisch, Y. Champouret, R. Poli, K. C. D. Robson, W. S. McNeil.  “Electronic and Steric Ligand Effects in the Radical Polymerization of Vinyl Acetate Mediated by β-Ketoiminate Complexes of Cobalt(II)”  Chem. Asian J. 20094, 1257-1265.

Selected Grants & Awards

UBC Okanagan Award for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, 2009
UBC Okanagan Killam Teaching Prize, 2018
Canadian Society for Chemistry Faculty Advisor Award, 2018
Chemical Institute of Canada Award for Chemistry Education, 2019
British Columbia Teaching & Learning Council West Coast Teaching Excellence Award, 2023

Professional Services/Affiliations/Committees

Past-Chair, Chemistry Education Division, Chemical Institute of Canada.


Apologies, but no results were found.