Students Welcome Informal, Intensive Labs

Chemistry departments leveraged ACS funding to help students catch up on lab skills

by Robin Donovan for the American Chemical Society 

Students handling glassware
Photo by Artem from Pexels

As more and more universities return to in-person instruction, chemistry educators are sighing with mixed elation and concern. There is a sense of joy at seeing students in front of beakers and pipettes once more and, of course, the lingering ramifications of months or even years away from the lab.

“​​I taught an upper-level lab and was shocked at the deficiencies,” says Larryn Peterson, Ph.D., chair of biochemistry and molecular biology at Rhodes College in Memphis. “They didn't even know how to hold a pipette, really, or how to measure anything.” She and a colleague applied for a grant from the American Chemical Society (ACS), which provided faculty with up to $3,000 as a one-time honorarium to rectify this problem. The funding supported instructors leading a hands-on, general or organic chemistry lab skill “boot camp” or short-course format. The funding was offered in fall and winter last year, for workshops offered through the end of the current school year.

Arkansas Tech chemistry professor Mariusz Gajewski Ph.D., said his students’ skills post-lockdown were “just terrible. It’s like their memory got wiped out and they’d never had contact with chemistry.” He designed a one-day workshop after receiving the same ACS grant, realizing it might be impossible to find a three-day span that most students could attend. Yet, even a single day of focused attention on lab skills was invaluable​​, according to participants Gajewski polled.

“One of the first things [they] pointed out was their level of confidence in the lab which had skyrocketed,” he says.

ACS launches mini-grant

The grant was borne out of discussions within ACS offices, as leaders weighed supporting students returning to in-person labs after two years of focusing on how to support students in virtual or mixed virtual and in-person formats, says Michelle Brooks, Ph.D., senior manager for the ACS Undergraduate Program Office. The question was pressing. “Now we're putting students back in the lab all of a sudden. How are we going to get them up to speed?” Brooks says.

Students who participated did so free of charge through grantee institutions. Brooks says the hands-on, short course, mini-grant program was designed as a one-time offering for the 2021-2022 school year, but its popularity has been undeniable, with applications outpacing available funding. Colleges and universities whose students could be best served by the program, Brooks says, were given priority among grant applicants.

“What we were after in the long run was being able to get the students who had the most need the skills that they needed,” Brooks says. “We also wanted to help schools who might not have had the resources available to run this kind of a program.”

Different schools, different experiments

ACS developed a suggested curriculum for the workshops, though some instructors, like Peterson, chose to use existing materials, teaching experiments students may have missed during the pandemic, or experiments students had only watched virtually. Others, did use the ACS modules, which were designed to be materially simple and cost-effective.

“We tried to stay very green in the choices that we made for the chemicals students would be using,” Brooks says. The ACS modules remain available online even to non-grant recipients.

With her award, Peterson organized a mini workshop that 20 students attended on a weekend. Students were simply evaluated on a 1-to-3 scale to judge whether they’d mastered skills, or still needed more work. Professors at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, used the ACS curriculum, following a similar Friday-Saturday-Sunday format as Peterson.

Paul Steinbach Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the college, says Benedictine students mostly signed up for the general chemistry lab, perhaps because this is what they missed during the pandemic. That included, he says, even students who had already taken organic chemistry. In total, more than a dozen students total participated. Steinbach says they were concerned offering extra credit might not be fair. Instead, they offered free food and drinks during the workshop as an incentive.

Lab skills with a smile

Student enthusiasm stood out the most to professors who taught labs skills in short-course formats. “I’m wondering, should we do this again? Should this be a yearly type of event?” Steinbach asks. He says that finding the fun in lab work is a hallmark of a chemistry or biochemistry major, but one that seems to be on the decline.

“Often, they really like the lab work, but at the same time, they get caught up worrying about all the grade stuff,” he says. “I’m starting to realize that’s probably taking the fun out of it.” Rhodes’ Peterson offered prizes, including free ACS memberships, to similarly motivated students, to help keep things fun.

“First of all, they were so excited to be back in the lab,” Peterson says of students’ reactions. “They were enthusiastic, they were engaged.” Overall, grant recipients were struck by the possibility for freedom and fun in environments where grades weren’t of primary importance.

“They like this informal approach to the lab. It was more like a group of friends talking about chemistry than a professor giving a lecture,” Gajewski says, describing his interactive teaching style. He interspersed explanations and theory with hands-on lab skills as his students worked to synthesize an ester that smells like oranges. “I also wanted them to synthesize something pleasant,” he adds, of his efforts to boost students’ enthusiasm for lab work. Steinbach echoed those observations.

“The one thing we saw that stood out to me was that since there was no grading in this training, the students really jumped in,” he says. “You could tell they were having a good time doing the lab work and learning at the same time.” He says that students being graded in the lab tend to put pressure on themselves. “Lab is supposed to be fun,” he says.

The experiment, if designed to help students, has left more than one professor wondering if there’s a way to make chemistry more engaging, enjoyable, and productive all at once. Steinbach says he sees some students weighed down by formal lab reports: “Maybe we're doing way too much of it,” he says, citing the need for industry feedback, too. “Maybe we can bring back a little bit of fun in the lab by not doing so much.”

Peterson says her weekend workshop also left her wondering about course design: “It's important to do the experiment, but also, do they come in and just follow some cookbook procedure? What skills are they learning in the end, and taking away from that semester?”

For many students, whose professors collected post-workshop feedback, a day or weekend spent in the lab was a welcome break from more formal environments where grades are paramount. For professors, it was a chance to find fun in the lab again, and to encourage student creativity and exploration.

For ACS, offering the grant was a step outside of the norm. Call it a different type of experiment, one that Brooks hopes will be supportive of not only college chemistry majors, but science-minded students—and future chemists—of all ages. “We're here to help the next generation of chemists,” Brooks says.

Data and outcomes from the mini-grant program will be shared at the upcoming Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, which is being held at Purdue University July 31 - August 4, 2022. More information regarding the conference can be found on the conference website

 

“What we were after in the long run was being able to get the students who had the most need the skills that they needed,” Brooks says. “We also wanted to help schools who might not have had the resources available to run this kind of a program.”