Lab Education: Past, Present and Future Discussion

Yesterday I was a panellist on an ACS Chem Ed Research Committee discussion on laboratory education. It was a very interesting and wide ranging discussion on teaching laboratories moderated by Nikita Burrows, with panellists Brittland DeKorver, Joi Walker and me. There was a large and active audience, testamant to the enduring popularity of talking about laboratory education. Some thoughts below, but it is worth flagging the quality of the panel and what they bring to the discussion. I suggest anyone interested read:

  • Brittland: DeKorver, B. K., & Towns, M. H. (2016).Upper‐level undergraduate chemistry students’ goals for their laboratory coursework. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(8), 1198-1215. This is an excellent paper and follows on from their similar study on general chemistry level; but this is all the more valuable for looking at students focussing on chemistry as a major. It unpacks a lot about student perspectives of laboratory work in terms of their goals and motivations. It should be compulsory reading for anyone in a teaching laboratory!
  • Joi: Sampson, V., & Walker, J. P. (2012). Argument-driven inquiry as a way to help undergraduate students write to learn by learning to write in chemistryInternational Journal of Science Education, 34(10), 1443-1485. This is one from early on in the series of Joi’s publications on ADI, and I like it as it really sets the scene for the basis of incorporating and integrating argumentation into general chemistry laboratory activities. The focus here is writing, and her later work extends more generally into scientific practices. Worth following!
  • Nikita: Burrows, N. L., Ouellet, J., Joji, J., & Man, J. (2021). Alternative Assessment to Lab Reports: A Phenomenology Study of Undergraduate Biochemistry Students’ Perceptions of Interview AssessmentJournal of Chemical Education. ASAP. Nikita’s recent publication on exploring interviews in advanced chemistry labs is really fantastic; this work again took a student perspective and identified challenges associated with interviews, but also pointed to their benefit in terms of actions students took, such as increasing preparation for laboratory work in general. I’m excited to see what more comes out of this research.
  • Me: Obviously you should read everything I write, but I think for the purposes of this assignment, my commentary on establishing what we think learning goals in the laboratory are is probably most pertinent. Seery, M. K. (2020). Establishing the laboratory as the place to learn how to do chemistryJournal of Chemical Education97(6), 1511-1514.

What interested me most about our discussion is where opinions differed, and it was great to air these as they opened up a lot of talk about why we think certain things; dialogue and talking about how and why we teach the way we do is likely the main way to get incremental change. There was a good question from the audience about stakeholder investment in laboratory teaching (and changing laboratory teaching) and that is probably a significantly overlooked area, in that we don’t talk about how we engage stakeholders enough.  At the end I had a rash, albeit polite, lob at professional bodies and the need for them to step up and move on from “number of hours on lab related activities” as the main thing to consider regarding professional accreditation. THIS NEEDS ACTION.

We discussed a little about equity and looking at comments after there was some interesting talk, but that certainly needs a full session on its own to dig into in the depth it requires. I fulfilled my brief to acknowledge the “past” in the title by mentioning Zozimos of Panopolis in my opening gambit. According to Principe, he worked at a time when the stream of knowledge of artisans and craft workers used to working with metals merged with the streams of knowledge from (Greek) philosophy understanding what was going on; so the (al)chemist was someone who was doing things while knowing what they were doing. Not too far from our modern goals perhaps.

Anyway, hopefully it is worth a watch!