Chemistry, Laboratory

A tour around Johnstone’s Triangle

In a small laboratory off the M25, is a man named Bob. And Bob is a genius at designing and completing reactions on a very small scale. Bob is greatly helped by Dr Kay Stephenson, Mary Owen and Emma Warwick.

I was invited to go down to CLEAPPS to see Bob in action, and try out for myself some of the microscale chemistry he has been developing. I was interested to see it because of a general interest in laboratory expriments and how we can expand our repertoire. But I found out a lot more than just smaller versions of laboratory experiments.

Safety and cost considerations first piqued Bob’s interest in microscale. The traditional laboratory Hofmann voltmeter costs about £250, but the microscale version, including ingenious three way taps to syringe out the separated gases costs about £50. Thoughts about how to do a reduction of copper oxide safely led him to use a procedure that avoided traditional problems with explosions. There’s also a very neat version using iron oxide, incorporating the use of a magnet to show that iron forms.

Electrochemical production of leading to subsequent production of iodine and bromine. Copper crystals form on the electrode.
Electrochemical production of chlorine leading to subsequent production of iodine and bromine. Copper crystals form on the electrode.

Bob promised to show me 93 demonstrations in a morning (“scaled back from 94!”) and I worried on my way there that I would have to put on my polite smile after a while. But actually time flew, and as we worked through the (less than 93) experiments, I noticed something very obvious. This isn’t just about safety and cost. It has deep grounding in the scholarship of teaching and learning too.

Cognitive Load

What I remember from the session is not the apparatus, but the chemistry. Practical chemistry is difficult because we have to worry about setting up apparatus and this can act as a distraction to the chemistry involved. However, the minimal and often absence of apparatus meant that we were just doing and observing chemistry. This particularly struck me when we were looking at conductivity measurements, using a simple meter made with carbon fibre rods (from a kite shop). This, along with several other experiments, used an ingenious idea of instruction sheets within polypropylene pockets (Bob has thought a lot about contact angles). The reaction beaker becomes a drop of water, and it is possible to explore some lovely chemistry: pH indicator colours, conductivity, precipitation reactions, producing paramagnetic compounds, all in this way. It’s not all introductory chemistry; we discussed a possible experiment for my third year physical chemists and there is lots to do for a general chemistry first year lab, including a fabulously simple colourimeter.

Designing a universal indicator.
Designing a universal indicator.

Johnstone’s Triangle

One of the reasons chemistry is difficult to learn is because we have multiple ways of representing it. We can describe things as we view them: the macroscopic scale – a white precipitate forms when we precipitate out chloride ions with silver ions. We can describe things at the atomic scale, describing the ionic movement leading the above precipitation. And we can use symbolism, for example representing the ions in a diagram, or talking about the solubility product equation.  When students learn chemistry, moving between these “domains” is an acknowledged difficulty. These three domains were described by Alex Johnstone, and we now describe this as Johnstone’s triangle.

Johnstone's triangle (from U. Iowa Chemistry)
Johnstone’s triangle (from U. Iowa Chemistry)

One of my observations from the many experiments I carried out with Bob was that we can begin to see these reactions happening. The precipitation reactions took place over about 30 seconds as the ions from a salt at each side migrated through the droplet. Conductivity was introduced into the assumed unionised water droplet by shoving in a grain or two of salt. We are beginning to jump across representations visually. Therefore what has me excited about these techniques is not just laboratory work, but activities to stimulate student chatter about what they are observing and why. The beauty of the plastic sheets is that they can just be wiped off quickly with a paper towel before continuing on.

Reaction of ammonia gas (Centre) with several solutions including HCl with universal indicator (top right) and copper chloride (bottom right)
Reaction of ammonia gas (centre) with several solutions including HCl with universal indicator (top right) and copper chloride (bottom right)

Bob knew I was a schoolboy chemist at heart. “Put down that book on phenomenology” I’m sure I heard him say, before he let me pop a flame with hydrogen and reignite it with oxygen produced from his modified electrolysis apparatus (I mean who doesn’t want to do this?!). I left the room fist-bumping the air after a finale of firing my own rocket, coupled with a lesson in non-Newtonian liquids. And lots of ideas to try. And a mug.

I want a CLEAPPS set to be developed in time for Christmas. In the mean time, you can find lots of useful materials at: http://science.cleapss.org.uk/.

Chemistry, Laboratory, Pedagogy

ChemEd Journal Publications from UK since 2015

I’ve compiled this list for another purpose and thought it might be useful to share here. 

The following are publications I can find* from UK corresponding authors on chemistry education research, practice, and laboratory work relevant to HE since beginning of 2015.  There are lots of interesting finds and useful articles. Most are laboratory experiments and activities, Some refer to teaching practice or underlying principles.

I don’t imagine this is a fully comprehensive list, so do let me know what’s missing. It’s in approximate chronological order from beginning of 2015.

  1. Surrey (Lygo-Baker): Teaching polymer chemistry
  2. Reading (Strohfeldt): PBL medicinal chemistry practical
  3. Astra Zeneca and Huddersfield (Hill and Sweeney): A flow chart for reaction work up
  4. Bath (Chew): Lab experiment: coffee grounds to biodiesel
  5. Nottingham (Galloway): PeerWise for revision
  6. Hertfordshire (Fergus): Context examples of recreational drugs for spectroscopy and introductory organic chemistry 
  7. Overton (was Hull): Dynamic problem based learning
  8. Durham (Hurst, now at York): Lab Experiment: Rheology of PVA gels
  9. Reading (Cranwell): Lab experiment: Songoshira reaction
  10. Edinburgh (Seery): Flipped chemistry trial
  11. Oaklands (Smith): Synthesis of fullerenes from graphite
  12. Manchester (O’Malley): Virtual labs for physical chemistry MOOC  
  13. Edinburgh (Seery): Review of flipped lectures in HE chemistry
  14. Manchester (Wong): Lab experiment: Paterno-Buchi and kinetics
  15. Southampton (Coles): Electronic lab notebooks in upper level undergraduate lab
  16. UCL (Tomaszewski): Information literacy, searching
  17. St Andrews & Glasgow (Smellie): Lab experiment: Solvent extraction of copper
  18. Imperial (Rzepa): Lab experiment: Assymetric epoxidation in the lab and molecular modelling; electronic lab notebooks
  19. Reading (Cranwell): Lab experiment: Wolff Kishner reaction
  20. Imperial (Rzepa): Using crystal structure databases
  21. Leeds (Mistry): Inquiry based organic lab in first year – students design work up
  22. Manchester (Turner): Molecular modelling activity
  23. Imperial (Haslam & Brechtelsbauer): Lab experiment: vapour pressure with an isosteniscope
  24. Imperial (Parkes): Making a battery from household products
  25. Durham (Bruce and Robson): A corpus for writing chemistry
  26. Who will it be…?!

*For those interested, the Web of Science search details are reproduced below. Results were filtered to remove non-UK papers, conference proceedings and editorials.

ADDRESS:((united kingdom OR UK OR Scotland OR Wales OR England OR (Northern Ireland))) AND TOPIC: (chemistry)AND YEAR PUBLISHED: (2016 or 2015)

Refined by: WEB OF SCIENCE CATEGORIES: ( EDUCATION EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH OR EDUCATION SCIENTIFIC DISCIPLINES )
Timespan: All years. Indexes: SCI-EXPANDED, SSCI, A&HCI, CPCI-S, CPCI-SSH, BKCI-S, BKCI-SSH, ESCI, CCR-EXPANDED, IC.

 

Chemistry, Laboratory, Pedagogy

Practical work: theory or practice?

Literature on laboratory education over the last four decades (and more, I’m sure) has a lot to say on the role of practical work in undergraduate curricula. Indeed Baird Lloyd (1992) surveys opinions on the role of practical work in North American General Chemistry syllabi over the course of the 20th century and opens with this delicious quote, apparently offered by a student in 1928 in a $10 competition:

Chemistry laboratory is so intimately connected with the science of chemistry, that, without experimentation, the true spirit of the science cannot possibly be acquired. 

I love this quote because it captures so nicely the sense that laboratory work is at the heart of chemistry teaching – its implicit role in the teaching of chemistry is unquestionable. And although it has been questioned a lot, repeatedly, over the following decades; not many today would advocate a chemistry syllabus that did not contain laboratory work.

I feel another aspect of our consideration of chemistry labs is often unchallenged, and needs to be. That is the notion that chemistry laboratories are in some way proving ground for what students come across in lectures. That they provide an opportunity for students to visualise and see for themselves what the teacher or lecturer was talking about. Or more laudably, to even “discover” for themselves by following a controlled experiment a particular relationship. Didn’t believe it in class that an acid and an alcohol make an ester? Well now you are in labs, you can prove it. Can’t imagine that vapour pressure increases with temperature? Then come on in – we have just the practical for you. Faraday said that he was never able to make a fact his own without seeing it. But then again, he was a great demonstrator.

A problem with this on an operational level, especially at university, and especially in the physical chemistry laboratory, is that is near impossible to schedule practicals so that they follow on from the introduction of theory in class. This leads to the annual complaint from students that they can’t do the practical because they haven’t done the theory. Your students are saying this, if you haven’t heard them, you need to tune your surveys.

It’s an entirely understandable sentiment from students because we situate practicals as a subsidiary of lectures. But this is a false relationship for a variety of reasons. The first is that if you accept a model whereby you teach students chemistry content in lectures, why is there a need to supplement this teaching with a re-teaching of a sub-set of topics, arbitrarily chosen based on the whim of a lab course organiser and the size of a department’s budget? Secondly, although we aim to re-teach, or hit home some major principle again in lab work, we don’t really assess that. We might grade students’ lab report and give feedback, but it is not relevant to them as they won’t need to know it again in that context. The lab report is done. And finally, the model completely undermines the true role of practical work and value it can offer the curriculum.

A different model

When we design lecture courses, we don’t really give much thought to the labs that will go with them. Lecture course content has evolved rapidly to keep up to date with new chemistry; lab development is much slower. So why not the other way around? Why not design lab courses independent of lectures? Lecture courses are one area of the curriculum to learn – typically the content of the curriculum; laboratory courses are another. And what might the role here be?

Woolnough and Allsop (1985), who make a clear and convincing argument for cutting the “Gordian knot” between theory and practice, instead advocate a syllabus that has three aims:

  1. developing practical skills and techniques.
  2. being a problem-solving chemist.
  3. getting a “feel for phenomena”.

The detail of how this can be done is the subject of their book, but involves a syllabus that has “exercises, investigations, and experiences”. To me these amount to the “process” of chemistry. On a general level, I think this approach is worth consideration as it has several impacts on teaching and learning in practice.

Impacts on teaching and learning

Cutting the link between theory and practice means that there is no longer a need to examine students’ understanding of chemistry concepts by proxy. Long introductions, much hated by students, which aim to get the student to understand the theory behind the topic at hand by rephrasing what is given to them in a lab manual, are obsolete. A properly designed syllabus removes the need for students to have had lectures in a particular topic before a lab course. Pre-lab questions can move away from being about random bits of theory and focus on the relationships in the experiment. There is no need for pointless post-lab questions that try to squeeze in a bit more theory.

Instead, students will need to approach the lab with some kind of model for what is happening. This does not need to be the actual equations they learn in lectures. Some thought means they may be able to draw on prior knowledge to inform that model. Of course, the practical will likely involve using some aspect of what they cover or will cover in lectures, but at the stage of doing the practical, it is the fundamental relationship they are considering and exploring. Approaching the lab with a model of a relationship (clearly I am in phys chem labs here!) and exploring that relationship is better reflecting the nature of science, and focussing students attention on the study in question. Group discussions and sharing data are more meaningful. Perhaps labs could even inform future lectures rather than rely on past ones! A final advantage is the reassertion of practical skills and techniques as a valuable aspect of laboratory work.

A key point here is that the laboratory content is appropriate for the level of the curriculum, just as it is when we design lectures. This approach is not advocating random discovery – quite the opposite. But free of the bond with associated lectures, there is scope to develop a much more coherent, independent, and more genuinely complementary laboratory course.

References

Baird W. Lloyd, The 20th Century General Chemistry Laboratory: its various faces, J. Chem. Ed., 1992, 69(11), 866-869.

Brian Woolnaugh and Terry Allsop (1985) Practical Work in Science, Cambridge University Press.

1928 quote

Chemistry, Pedagogy, Royal Society of Chemistry

Reflections on #micer16

Several years ago at the Variety in Chemistry Education conference, there was a rather sombre after-dinner conversation on whether the meeting would continue on in subsequent years. Attendance numbers were low and the age profile was favouring the upper half of the bell-curve.

Last year at Variety I registered before the deadline and got, what I think was the last space, and worried about whether my abstract would be considered. The meeting was packed full of energetic participants interested in teaching from all over UK and Ireland, at various stages of their careers. A swell in numbers is of course expected from the merging with the Physics Higher Education Conference, but the combination of the two is definitely (from this chemist’s perspective) greater than the sum of its parts.

Participants at #micer16
Participants at #micer16

What happened in the mean time would be worthy of a PhD study. How did the fragile strings that were just holding people together in this disparate, struggling community, not snap, but instead strengthen to bring in many newcomers? A complex web of new connections has grown.  While I watched it happen I am not sure how it happened. I suspect it is a confluence of many factors: the efforts of the RSC at a time when chemistry was at a low-point. The determination of the regular attendees to keep supporting it, knowing its inherent value. The ongoing support of people like Stuart Bennett, Dave McGarvey, Stephen Breuer, Bill Byers, and others. And of course the endless energy of Tina Overton and the crew at the Physical Sciences Centre at Hull.

Whatever the process, we are very lucky to have a vibrant community of people willing to push and challenge and innovate in our teaching of chemistry. And that community is willing and is expected to play a vital role in the development of teaching approaches. This requires design and evaluation of these approaches; a consideration of how they work in our educational context. And this requires the knowledge of how to design these research studies and complete these evaluations. Readers will note that Variety now particularly welcome evidence-based approaches.

Most of us in this community are chemists, and the language of education research can be new, and difficult to navigate. Thus a meeting such as MICER held last week aimed to introduce and/or develop approaches in education research. The speakers were excellent, but having selected them I knew they would be! Participants left, from what I could see and saw on social media, energised and enthused about the summer ahead and possible projects.

But we will all return to our individual departments, with the rest of the job to do, and soon enthusiasm gives way to pragmatism, as other things get in the way. It can be difficult to continue to develop expertise and competence in chemistry education research without a focus. The community needs to continue to support itself, and seek support from elsewhere.

How might this happen?

Support from within the community can happen by contacting someone you met at a conference and asking them to be a “critical friend”. Claire Mc Donnell introduced me to this term  and indeed was my critical friend. This is someone whom you trust to talk about your work with, share ideas and approaches, read drafts of work. It is a mutual relationship, and I have found it extremely beneficial, both from the perspective of having someone sensible to talk to, but also from a metacognitive perspective. Talking it out makes me think about it more.

The community can organise informal and formal journal clubs. Is there a particular paper you liked – how did the authors complete a study and what did they draw from it? Why not discuss it with someone, or better still in the open?

Over the next while I am hoping to crystallise these ideas and continue the conversations on how we do chemistry education research. I very much hope you can join me and be an active participant; indeed a proactive participant. So that there is an independent platform, I have set up the website http://micerportal.wordpress.com/ and welcome anyone interested in being involved to get in touch about how we might plan activities or even a series of activities. I hope to see you there.

Chemistry, Pedagogy

My ten favourite #chemed articles of 2015

This post is a sure-fire way to lose friends… but I’m going to pick 10 papers that were published this year that I found interesting and/or useful. This is not to say they are ten of the best; everyone will have their own 10 “best” based on their own contexts.

Caveats done, here are 10 papers on chemistry education research that stood out for me this year:

0. Text messages to explore students’ study habits (Ye, Oueini, Dickerson, and Lewis, CERP)

I was excited to see Scott Lewis speak at the Conference That Shall Not Be Named during the summer as I really love his work. This paper outlines an interesting way to find out about student study habits, using text-message prompts. Students received periodic text messages asking them if they have studied in the past 48 hours. The method is ingenious. Results are discussed in terms of cluster analysis (didn’t study as much, used textbook/practiced problems, and online homework/reviewed notes). There is lots of good stuff here for those interested in students’ study and supporting independent study time. Lewis often publishes with Jennifer Lewis, and together their papers are master-classes in quantitative data analysis. (Note this candidate for my top ten was so obvious I left it out in the original draft, so now it is a top 11…)

1. What do students learn in the laboratory (Galloway and Lowery-Bretz, CERP)?

This paper reports on an investigation using video cameras on the student to record their work in a chemistry lab. Students were interviewed soon after the lab. While we can see what students physically do while they are in the lab (psychomotor learning), it is harder to measure cognitive and affective experiences. This study set about trying to measure these, in the context of what the student considered to be meaningful learning. The paper is important for understanding learning that is going on in the laboratory (or not, in the case of recipe labs), but I liked it most for the use of video in collection of data.

2. Johnstone’s triangle in physical chemistry (Becker, Stanford, Towns, and Cole, CERP).

We are familiar with the importance of Johnstone’s triangle, but a lot of research often points to introductory chemistry, or the US “Gen Chem”. In this paper, consideration is given to understanding whether and how students relate macro, micro, and symbolic levels in thermodynamics, a subject that relies heavily on the symbolic (mathematical). The reliance on symbolic is probably due in no small part to the emphasis most textbooks place on this. The research looked at ways that classroom interactions can develop the translation across all levels, and most interestingly, a sequence of instructor interactions that showed an improvement in coordination of the three dimensions of triplet. There is a lot of good stuff for teachers of introductory thermodynamics here.

3. The all-seeing eye of prior knowledge (Boddey and de Berg, CERP).

My own interest in prior knowledge as a gauge for future learning means I greedily pick up anything that discusses it in further detail. And this paper does that well. It looked at the impact of completing a bridging course on students who had no previous chemistry, comparing them with those who had school chemistry. However, this study takes that typical analysis further, and interviewed students. These are used to tease out different levels of prior knowledge, with the ability to apply being supreme in improving exam performance.

4.  Flipped classes compared to active classes (Flynn, CERP).

I read a lot of papers on flipped lectures this year in preparing a review on the topic. This was by far the most comprehensive. Flipping is examined in small and large classes, and crucially any impact or improvement is discussed by comparing with an already active classroom. A detailed model for implementation of flipped lectures linking before, during, and after class activities is presented, and the whole piece is set in the context of curriculum design. This is dissemination of good practice at its best.

5. Defining problem solving strategies (Randles and Overton, CERP).

This paper gained a lot of attention at the time of publication, as it compares problem solving strategies of different groups in chemistry; undergraduates, academics, and industrialists. Beyond the headline though, I liked it particularly for its method – it is based on grounded theory, and the introductory sections give a very good overview on how this was achieved, which I think will be informative to many. Table 2 in particular demonstrates coding and example quotes which is very useful.

6. How do students experience labs? (Kable and more, IJSE)

This is a large scale project with a long gestation – the ultimate aim is to develop a laboratory experience survey, and in particular a survey for individual laboratory experiments, with a view to their iterative improvement. Three factors – motivation (interest and responsibility), assessment, and resources – are related to students’ positive experience of laboratory work. The survey probes students’ responses to these (some like quality of resources give surprising results). It is useful for anyone thinking about tweaking laboratory instruction, and looking for somewhere to start.

7. Approaches to learning and success in chemistry (Sinapuelas and Stacy, JRST)

Set in the context of transition from school to university, this work describes the categorisation of four levels of learning approaches (gathering facts, learning procedures, confirming understanding, applying ideas). I like these categories as they are a bit more nuanced, and perhaps less judgemental, than surface vs deep learning. The approach level correlates with exam performance. The paper discusses the use of learning resources to encourage students to move from learning procedures (level 2) to confirming understanding (level 3). There are in-depth descriptions characterising each level, and these will be informative to anyone thinking about how to support students’ independent study.

8. Exploring retention (Shedlosky-Shoemaker and Fautch, JCE).

This article categorises some psychological factors aiming to explain why some students do not complete their degree. Students switching degrees tend to have higher self-doubt (in general rather than just for chemistry) and performance anxiety. Motivation did not appear to distinguish between those switching or leaving a course and those staying. The study is useful for those interested in transition, as it challenges some common conceptions about student experiences and motivations. This study appears to suggest much more personal factors are at play.

9. Rethinking central ideas in chemistry (Talanquer, JCE).

Talanquer publishes regularly and operates on a different intellectual plane to most of us. While I can’t say I understand every argument he makes, he always provokes thought. In this commentary, he discusses the central ideas of introductory chemistry (atoms, elements, bonds, etc), and proposes alternative central ideas (chemical identity, mechanisms, etc). It’s one of a series of articles by several authors (including Talanquer himself) that continually challenge the approach we currently take to chemistry. It’s difficult to say whether this will ever become more than a thought experiment though…

10. Newcomers to education literature (Seethaler, JCE).

If you have ever wished to explain to a scientist colleague how education research “works”, this paper might be of use. It considers 5 things scientists should know about education research: what papers can tell you (and their limitations), theoretical bases in education research, a little on misconceptions and content inventories, describing learning, and tools of the trade. It’s a short article at three pages long, so necessarily leaves a lot of information out. But it is a nice primer.

Finally

The craziest graphical abstract of the year must go to Fung’s camera set up. And believe me, the competition was intense.

ed-2014-009624_0007